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The land is burning



This year’s scorching heatwave across much of Southeast Asia, which saw daily temperatures soar past 40 degrees Celsius, is incendiary warning of things to come.

Average temperatures have been increasing for decades; Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam are among the countries most affected by climate change and global warming this century.

As temperatures rise in a region of over half a billion people reliant for the most part on locally-grown crops such as rice, food production and labor productivity will be severely affected.

The impact on human security will in turn affect socio-economic stability and upset regional relationships. Climate change is already a key driver of conflict in Africa; Southeast Asia is not that far behind.

For the time being, climate change is imposing hardships on people already suffering in conflict zones. Myanmar is considered one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to extreme weather events such as heatwaves, floods and cyclones.

In central Myanmar’s dry zone, determined resistance to military-imposed rule since February 2021 occurs in areas already ravaged by drought and rising average temperatures.


In Sagaing and Magway, increasingly parched regions heavily dependent on agriculture, farmers have been struggling for years to survive. Migration northward and eastward towards China and Thailand has been the main response. 

Now, even if people manage to migrate to cities and more developed areas of the central region of Myanmar, scarcity of fresh water and electricity makes existence hard in situations where work must be carried out at times in temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius.

Managing this slow onset of climate change impact has been thwarted by limited state resources and armed resistance to central authorities. This was evident in the wake of Cyclone Mocha, the category five super cyclone that hit Rakhine state in mid-May.

Quite apart from the difficulty of entering affected areas controlled by resistance forces, the UN cited obstacles to providing much-needed aid posed by banking restrictions and the need for Yangon’s travel authorization.

Although detailed information and data is scarce, Myanmar may be the first country in Southeast Asia to see the debilitating nexus between climate change and conflict impact human security severely. 

Elsewhere in the region, this year’s excessively hot dry season brought with it economic and health problems: the combination of high temperatures and air pollution from the burning of crop stubble affected the health and residents in Northern Thailand and depressed the critical tourist industry.  

In Chiang Mai, the air quality index measuring particulate matter (PM 2.5) remained above 300 for two weeks from the end of March— 20 times above the upper limit recommended by the World Health Organization.


As a result, hotel occupancy was running below 50% in a traditionally high season for tourists and more than two million people were reportedly treated in hospitals for respiratory effects.

While the difference with Myanmar is that there is no paralyzing internal conflict, studies point to the appearance of local tensions – between urban residents affected by the pollution and provincial agrarians accused of the crop burning. 

Ahead of a general election in mid-May, the Thai government mobilized to order people in the worst affected areas to work from home and reached out to neighboring countries to see about reducing crop stubble burning.

These moves will become routine in the region as climate change impact intensifies every year. But the question is how well prepared are regional governments for more serious social and economic fallout – and what needs to be done to help the region more effectively respond?

Perhaps the tools of dialogue and mediation can be helpful. 

In conflict zones like Myanmar, as in parts of Africa, where governance is impaired by conflict, it will be important to help communities help themselves.

But even as top-down solutions are out of the question, the severe impediments imposed on local civil society and welfare organizations make it hard to extend help and advice to affected communities. 


In Myanmar, the UN notes there is “a high risk that natural disaster relief – in the case of, for instance, cyclones, flooding and drought – will be undermined or be used as an oppressive political tool, with the military preventing humanitarian organizations from helping affected populations.” 

To cope with the worsening situation, international aid agencies are urged by experts to tap into local civil society networks, especially in conflict areas. In more stable areas, where government and civil society operate unimpeded, there are still significant challenges to managing the situation.

Blame for environmental degradation is easily placed on vulnerable groups in society. Data-sharing is a major obstacle between states in a region where sovereignty is a barrier to cooperation. Deep mistrust and misalignment between state structures and civil society make for slow progress on designing effective coping strategies and policies.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of all will be managing climate change displacement. Whether voluntary, forced or planned, and although not so evident today, large-scale movement of people will soon become a feature of the region’s response to climate change.

Natural disasters displaced almost 8 million people in Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines in 2021, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva. The World Bank estimates that between 3.3 and 6.3 million people will be displaced by climate change in the Lower Mekong region between now and 2050.

Strong government structures in some countries will help ensure that planned re-location can be arranged. The bigger challenge will be cross-border migration that impacts labor and other human rights, for which inter-state monitoring and arrangements will be needed.

In sum, given that rising temperatures and drought, not to mention the rapid onset of extreme weather events, are already taking a toll on human security in the region, more organized and institutional anticipation and planning needs to be broached both at the national and inter-state level.


Relying on international agencies and global initiatives won’t necessarily generate responses well-tailored to the region or address the specific constraints on cooperation. Rather, a more concerted minilateral approach is urgently needed.

Michael Vatikiotis is Senior Adviser at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.     

Source: Asia Times