June 14, 2023
BEIJING – Heat wave detrimental to vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, experts say
Editor’s note: As Asia’s seasonal temperature records continued to tumble through last month and are expected to last well into this month, this page takes a close look at the impact of global warming and how collaborative projects manage to beat the heat across the continent.
Countries across Asia have been hit by another round of extreme heat that has toppled seasonal temperature records throughout the region.
After punishing heat waves struck large parts of the continent in April, temperatures spiked again late last month, normally the start of the cooler monsoon season.
India, Pakistan and Southeast Asia had already experienced a punishing heat wave in April, causing widespread infrastructure damage and a surge in heatstroke cases. Bangladesh was also at its hottest in 50 years, while Thailand hit a record 45 C.
The Hanoi Public Lighting Company has turned off some street lights in the Vietnamese capital to save electricity as intense heat has increased demand for air conditioning and strained the national power system.
Filipino climate activist Renato Redentor Constantino is grateful that he lives and works in a neighborhood lined with trees. He relishes the canopy’s cooling effect as he walks around Manila’s scorching heat.
“Extreme heat in the Philippines can be debilitating,” Constantino said, adding that it is dangerous for the elderly, children and workers who are required to be outdoors, or in factory or indoor settings that were not built for such high temperatures and which often lack basic ventilation.
Constantino, deputy chair of the Expert Advisory Group of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a global forum of countries most threatened by climate change, said the heat wave, which has swept across the Philippines and the rest of the Southeast Asian region, is proof that climate change is “not a phenomenon waiting to bite us in the future”.
“Scientists have long projected the steady rise in global temperatures and certainly Southeast Asia is not exempt from the impacts of global warming. The region will not be returning to far more pleasant temperatures it had enjoyed many decades ago.”
Scientists at the World Weather Attribution said the “extreme humid heat” in the region is “largely driven by climate change”, and this heat wave is detrimental to vulnerable and disadvantaged communities such as people with disabilities, outdoor workers and farmers.
Serina Abdul Rahman, lecturer at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, has seen how the heat wave is hurting the fishing community in Malaysia’s southwestern state of Johor.
Serina is an anthropologist who has extensively studied the community of fisherfolk in Johor. Higher temperatures usually cause strong winds that can lead to waterspouts — the winds and heat suck up water and turn into mini tornadoes on land, she said.
“This can be dangerous for fishermen but when those waterspouts head inland, they can cause severe damage to homes. I’ve seen this happen in Johor recently.”
The heat wave can also affect the livelihoods of fisherfolk as extreme heat can cause coral bleaching, she said. The damaged fish habitat will reduce fisheries stocks and consequently the fishers’ catch.
“This means that the heat then affects the seafood that is available for our dining tables. So the (heat wave’s) impact on the fishermen also affects people far removed from them in terms of food security,” Serina said.
Southeast Asian countries have posted record-high temperatures in the past few weeks. In Laos, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, temperatures have even hit over 40 C.
Some governments have imposed emergency measures to mitigate the effects of the heat wave on the population.
In Malaysia, the education ministry has ordered the suspension of all outdoor activities in schools; in the Philippines, state-owned schools have reduced class hours and adopted blended learning to protect students from the sweltering heat.
Thailand’s weather department has advised people to be wary of extremely high temperatures and sudden summer storms.
This month traditionally heralds the start of the monsoon season in the region, but a hot and dry season is expected in the coming months, said the Specialised Meteorological Centre of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The center said persistent dry weather has been observed in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and southern Thailand last month, and there is a “high likelihood” of El Nino drier and hotter conditions developing in the coming months, with the “more intense and prolonged” dry season seen to extend into October.
“The heat is definitely more intense than usual,” said Helena Varkkey, associate professor of environmental politics at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The current heat wave is “one of the most serious climate effects that we need to deal with”, and it has highlighted the dangers of failing to limit global warming to 1.5 C, she said.
It has also spurred the need to fulfill climate commitments, alluding to countries that had pledged to reduce carbon emissions under the Paris climate pact (adopted in 2015), she said.
In the immediate term, heat wave warning systems have to be implemented together with regular public health advisories to ensure that people know what to do during a heat wave, and where to seek help when needed, she said.
A more long-term measure is the implementation of building codes that require companies to use materials that encourage natural cooling and ventilation, Helena said. She also proposed increased afforestation especially in urban areas, which will not only provide shade but also encourage more people to walk and reduce fossil fuel usage.
Constantino from the Philippines said citizens also need to demand more responsive policies from governments in confronting the “climate-constrained future”. These include building public transport infrastructure that is not just cost-effective but also adaptive to expected hotter conditions.
“The way we generate and consume energy remains central to facing the challenges that are coming our way,” he said. “We must lean more and more on reliable, more affordable energy in the form of wind and solar power even while we make everything far more energy-efficient.”
Serina from Singapore said climate commitments should be fulfilled but is skeptical that they can be attained “beyond just big meetings and empty pledges”.
“The richest people on the planet, the more developed nations in the world use more energy and give off more carbon than all the poor nations. But the poor feel the impact the most. Is it even imaginable that the rich will forsake their comforts to save the poor?”
Agencies contributed to this story.