How S-E Asia plans to adapt to climate change


This article was licensed through Dow Jones Direct. The article was originally published on The Straits Times.

Different parts of region affected in their own ways, so no one-size-fits-all approach


South-east Asia is among the regions that are most vulnerable to the changing climate, and countries in Asean are taking steps to cope with the impact.

But six experts The Straits Times spoke to, after the release of a report last month by the United Nations' climate science body, say there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to adapting to climate change.

Different parts of Asean experience different climate impact, they say, and adaptation measures at each location must be thoroughly studied before implementation.

Adaptation measures refer to efforts made to reduce the impact of climate change. These could include building sea walls to keep out rising sea levels, or developing drainage systems so cities are not flooded during heavy rain.

Associate Professor Zelina Zaiton Ibrahim from the Faculty of Forestry and Environment at Universiti Putra Malaysia, who was involved in the latest report, said: "Adaptation is important because some effects of climate change result in inevitable impacts in the near-to mid-term."

The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last month emphasised the importance of adaptation in protecting lives and livelihoods from worsening climate disasters.

As the warming worsens and climate impact escalates, the IPCC warns, countries will face a diminishing pool of effective adaptive options to choose from.

The Straits Times highlights key adaptation strategies for the region.


Such systems help to reduce damage caused by extreme weather events - such as sudden bouts of heavy rain - to lives and property by alerting residents to incoming disaster in advance.

But the development of good early warning systems has been hindered by the lack of localised climate projections, said Prof Zelina.

This shows the importance of increasing the number of studies that look at the impacts and risk projection for a particular area, at different warming levels, she said.

Malaysia has various infrastructural developments to mitigate flooding, including a flood diversion tunnel in Kuala Lumpur. However, to remain effective, its design may need to be improved by taking into account the latest climate projections.


Thailand, the region's rice bowl, could face a decline in crop yields if the climate continues to get warmer, said Dr Seree Supratid, director of the Climate Change Centre at Rangsit University.

"Severe droughts which used to occur every five to seven years are now occurring every three years, and heavy flooding which occurs once in 30 years is now occurring once in 10 years," said Dr Seree, who was also a co-author of the latest report.

While both droughts and floods have adverse impacts on agriculture - the sector most vulnerable to climate change - the effects of droughts are a lot more damaging, he said.

"Rice yields have continuously reduced over the last 10 years. In the past, Thailand used to produce 30 million tonnes a year, and now it's only 20 million to 25 million tonnes a year, mostly due to droughts," he said.

One possible adaptive strategy for Thailand was to reduce the number of padi fields but improve the yields from the operational ones, through innovations like drip irrigation.

This, however, requires funding, which can be challenging to access, Dr Seree noted.


Low-lying Singapore is always on guard against rising sea levels, which could go up by as much as 5m after taking into account extreme high tides and storm surges, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu said last week.

To protect Singapore's 300km of coastline, national water agency PUB said eight coastal protection studies will be conducted in phases. Three studies were called last week - two on the north-west coast and one on Jurong Island.

Climate scientist Winston Chow from the Singapore Management University, who contributed to the latest IPCC report, cautioned against relying on a single adaptation strategy - such as building sea walls.

For example, while sea walls effectively reduce the impact on people and assets in the short term, they are also fixed investments with fixed costs such as regular maintenance, he said.

Building sea walls also reduces space for natural habitats that can potentially provide ecosystem services for adaptation, noted Associate Professor Chow.

For instance, mangroves are considered a natural defence against sea-level rise because the ability of their roots to trap sediment from the tides enables them to keep pace with the rising tides.

The authorities have said that hybrid solutions - comprising hard structures and nature-based solutions - will be considered.

Professor Yong Kwet Yew, the newly appointed chair of PUB's Coastal Protection Expert Panel, said that as sea-level rise is a long-term event, the agency is reviewing a "multi-layer risk management approach" that will incorporate a wide spectrum of adaptive solutions.


Cheryl Tan

Reporter, the Straits Times.