South-East Asia is in the grip of a record-breaking heatwave
WHEN ASKED about the secret behind Singapores transformation from fishing village to flourishing metropolis, Lee Kuan Yew, the city-states founding prime minister, credited air conditioning. It made development possible in the tropics, he said. These days, amid a sweltering heatwave, Singaporeans are more thankful than ever for their ACs. Temperatures have surged in recent weeks: on May 13th they touched 37C, the highest daily temperature recorded since 1983. Recent weeks have seen record temperatures throughout the region (see map), in what Maximiliano Herrera, a climatologist, reckons may be the most extreme and longest heat event in the tropical world on record. On May 6th Vietnam clocked its highest-ever temperature of 44.1C in the northern province of Thanh Hoa. And in the last two weeks of April many parts of Bangladesh, India, Laos and Thailand broiled in a heatwave. All four countries broke their previous temperature records while also experiencing high humidity, which greatly exacerbates the risk to human health. A rapid attribution study by the World Weather Attribution Project, a network of climate modellers, found that the 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 that is expressed in degrees of temperature but includes both heat and humidity, were at least 2C 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 Organisation (WMO), the UN agency that monitors weather and climate, has warned that later in the year the world is likely to enter El Nino, a weather pattern that typically reduces rainfall and pushes up temperatures in South-East Asia. El Ninos impacts vary elsewhere in the world but it generally has a warming effect. It is part of the reason why the WMO sees a 98% likelihood that at least one of the next five years will be the warmest on record globally. In South-East Asia El Nino could also exacerbate another big problem: haze. Farmers and plantation owners often prepare for harvests by slashing and burning crops and forests. The resulting haze contains PM2.5, microscopic particles that damage lungs. In 2015 El Nino helped produce one of the worst haze outbreaks ever recorded in the region. It is estimated to have led to 100,000 premature deaths. In Indonesia it is thought to have cost the economy $16bn (roughly 2% of GDP). Concerns about a repeat of such a disaster are growing. In recent weeks PM2.5 levels in Thailand have been 22 times higher than those deemed safe by the World Health Organisation. Air quality has deteriorated in Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. The arrival of El Nino could envelop the rest of South-East Asia in smog. Countries are taking more extreme steps to combat the problem. In 2019, when haze last loomed, Indonesian security forces were given more powers, including the ability to issue shoot-on-sight orders, to crack down on people who start fires. Haze, which drifts across borders, is a big source of tension between countries in the region. The Association of South-East Nations has established a monitoring system and also agreed to a treaty that commits countries to tackle the pollution and its sources. Enforcing those commitments, though, has proved hard. The return of haze will turn up the heat on simmering disputes. For more coverage of climate change, sign up for The Climate Issue, our fortnightly subscriber-only newsletter, or visit our climate-change hub.