Southeast Asia is in the grip of record heatwaves
WHEAD HEAD about the secret behind Singapore’s transformation from a fishing village to a thriving metropolis, Lee Kuan Yew, the city’s founding prime minister, credited air-conditioning. It made “possible development in the tropics”, he said. These days, in the midst of extreme heat, Singaporeans are more grateful than ever for their ACs. Temperatures have risen in recent weeks: on May 13 they hit 37°C, the highest daily temperature recorded since 1983.
In recent weeks there have been record high temperatures across the region (see map), in what Maximiliano Herrera, a climatologist, believes may be the longest and longest heat event ever in the tropical world that has been recorded. On May 6, Vietnam posted a record high temperature of 44.1 °C in the northern province of Thanh Hoa. And in the last two weeks of April many parts of Bangladesh, India, Laos and Thailand went into heat. The four countries broke their previous temperature records while also experiencing high humidity, which greatly increases the risk to people’s health.
A quick analysis of attribution by the World Weather Attribution Project, a network of climate models, found that extreme heat and humidity in April in Bangladesh, India, Laos and Thailand were made 30 times more likely by climate change. The conditions, measured on a scale expressed in degrees of temperature but including both heat and humidity, were at least 2°C hotter than they would have been without humans pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Temperatures everywhere could go even higher in 2023. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the UN A weather and climate watchdog has warned that the world is likely to enter El Niño later in the year, a weather pattern that usually reduces rainfall. and pushing temperatures up in Southeast Asia. The effects of El Niño vary in other parts of the world but generally have a warming effect. It is part of the reason why the WMO sees a 98% probability that at least one of the next five years will be the warmest on record globally.
In Southeast Asia El Niño could exacerbate another major problem: fog. Farmers and plantation owners often prepare for harvest by cutting and burning crops and forests. The resulting smoke contains PM2.5, microscopic particles that damage the lungs. In 2015 El Niño helped produce one of the worst smog events ever recorded in the region. It is estimated to have led to 100,000 premature deaths. In Indonesia it is estimated that it cost the economy $16bn (about 2% of GDP).
Concerns about such an accident again are growing. In recent weeks, PM2.5 levels in Thailand have been 22 times higher than those considered safe by the World Health Organization. Air quality has deteriorated in Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. The arrival of El Niño could cover the rest of Southeast Asia in smog.
Countries are taking tougher measures to tackle the problem. In 2019, when the smoke finally cleared, Indonesian security forces were given more powers, including the ability to issue watch orders, to get rid of people who start fires.
Haze, which moves across borders, is a source of great tension between countries in the region. The Association of Southeast Nations has established a monitoring system and has also agreed to a treaty that commits countries to deal with pollution and its sources. It has been difficult, however, to implement these promises. The return of smoke will turn up the heat on dating disputes. ■