Is Asean ready to adapt?

Readiness varies among countries, but public participation essential for dealing with climate change.

Southeast Asian countries could face intense impacts from climate change that would limit the potential of the Asean Economic Community (AEC), where agriculture still accounts for more than 10% of gross domestic product.

One reason the region is so vulnerable is that the most highly affected areas are often agricultural land and coastal areas where large numbers of poor people live. Adaptation plans, improved infrastructure and programmes to help these people become more resilient are essential.

However, levels of readiness vary among countries in the region and a lot remains to be done, according to a study titled "Climate Change Adaptation Readiness in the Asean Countries". It was prepared by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and commissioned by the Asean German Programme on Response to Climate Change in Agriculture and Forestry, supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

"We [Asean] are far from ready as a region because we have so many issues to attend to due to our existing development model that is market-oriented, with rampant poverty and limited finance to fund mitigation and adaptation actions," said Albert Salamanca, an SEI senior research fellow and co-author of the report along with Ha Nguyen.

The report categorises Asean countries into three groups: adaptation pioneers, emerging champions and wait-and-see-adaptors. Wealthy Singapore and Brunei are not included as they are different in terms of readiness and financial resources.

Adaptation pioneers: The Philippines and Vietnam are in this group. Both are highly vulnerable to typhoons and a rise in sea levels. The Philippines has a clear adaptation framework and action plans with public participation. Mr Salamanca pointed to promising national campaigns to restore mangrove forests to protect coastal shores.

Vietnam also has high awareness and a clear national master plan with action plans and targets to enable planning, monitoring and evaluation. The challenges Vietnam faces include salinity intrusion into the Red River Delta as sea levels rise, and land subsidence, water scarcity and river ecology disruption caused by many hydropower dams to be built upstream in China and Laos.

Emerging champions: Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia are in this group. Cambodia and Myanmar benefit from help from international donors to build resilience for communities.

Indonesia -- also highly vulnerable to sea level rising -- has a coherent policy and mechanisms in place, the report says. The national policy clearly endorses ecosystem resilience, sustainable livelihoods and economic resilience as three pillars of climate change adaptation. The Indonesia Climate Change Trust Fund, meanwhile, pools and coordinates national and international grants for activities.

Wait-and-see adaptors: Thailand and Malaysia are different. They are less prone to risks than Philippines and Vietnam, and have more resources than Cambodia and Myanmar. But this has made them complacent, which could be their undoing. Thailand in particular should have made the epic 2011 flood an opportunity to strengthen climate change adaptation and community resilience, but political turmoil prevented a proper response, the report noted.

Malaysia has a well established national policy on climate change, but the report says the focus is more on mitigation, such as emission reductions, and less on adaptation to prepare vulnerable groups to adjust.

Impoverished Laos receives help and funds from international agencies but programmes are not coordinated among ministries, the report says. Overlapping mandates, weak cooperation and a lack of commitment compound the problem of limited resources, access to expertise, knowledge and funding.

Mr Salamanca stressed that the report focused on the policy level and that this was just the start in the battle against climate change. "Certainly more needs to be done, especially in terms of implementing nationally determined contributions (NDCs). A promise is one thing; action is another," he told Asia Focus.

Apart from supportive policies and action plans, The Paris Agreement recognises that successful actions to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change must be inclusive, especially in the case of adaptation.

Mr Salamanca said adaptation must be participatory and fully transparent, taking into consideration vulnerable groups, communities and ecosystems. It should also combine the best available science with relevant indigenous and local knowledge.

Meaningful inclusion, he said, would require "democratic" spaces where diverse voices can be heard.

"However, these spaces in the region have tightened which may prevent vulnerable groups -- as they tend to be away from the mainstream of society -- to be consulted. In any dialogue, freedom of speech needs to be recognised so that those who have concerns can freely express their views and opinions without any fear of reprisals."

About the author

Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: Editorial pages editor