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Too Hot to Handle: Southeast Asia’s 2024 Heatwave



Earlier this year, Malaysians found themselves in a situation similar to the satirical "This is fine" meme, only in reality it wasn’t as funny because it was far from fine. Despite being accustomed to Southeast Asia's regional heat as part of our daily lives, recent years have seen a significant shift. More and more people are voicing out about the unbearable temperatures, signalling the onset of dangerous heatwaves. 


A heatwave, characterised by a prolonged period of extreme heat, represents an abnormal weather phenomenon. With the transition phase of the monsoon taking place around March to April, the hot and dry season continued to affect Malaysia, further exacerbating the phenomenon. The whole nation has felt its impact with two states (Pahang and Kelantan) recording level 2 heatwaves and eight others experiencing level 1 heatwaves (Perlis, Johor, Terengganu, Sabah, Sarawak, Negeri Sembilan, Kedah, and Perak). There were a total of 648 heatwave alerts this year, signalling the severity of the phenomenon hitting the country. 


Source: The Straits Times

It is evident that our neighbouring countries also grappled with the intense heat. In Thailand, 61 people were reported to have died of heatstroke, nearly double their figure in 2023. Even Thai Holiday Islands were not spared as they faced severe fresh water shortage following the heatwave. The extended high temperature brought low rainfall, causing island reservoirs to run dry. Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a researcher specialising in fisheries science, issued a warning that El Niño and global warming might seriously damage fish and coral in the Gulf of Thailand. He remarked that dipping into Thailand’s waters will soon feel like bathing in onsens.


In the Philippines, temperatures soared above 40°C, interrupting physical classes at nearly 4,000 schools. Teachers reported that the dangerous levels of heat gave them headaches and dizziness. They also stated that students were unable to concentrate and, at worst, had suffered health issues like nose bleeds.


The scorching temperatures have devastated the agriculture sector as well. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo resorted to deploying the military to assist farmers plant rice when rains finally came in December after the prolonged dry weather last year. On top of that, producers in several parts of Vietnam reportedly struggled to transport their harvests due to extremely low water levels in canals earlier this year.


The condition of Sungai Pahang in August 2023. Source: New Straits Times

Back home, several locations have triggered drastic changes as a result of the phenomenon. For instance, Sungai Pahang has turned into a desert at Kampung Pesagi, Chenor. What used to be the vital source of income for fish farmers has now left a riverbed exposed like bones. Sandbars emerged, disrupting the cage aquaculture industry by creating shallow waters. Locals were also impacted as the situation worsened, with the intense heat and little rain, depriving them of their beloved picnic spot.


A similar incident occurred in Sungai Kelantan, Kuala Krai, where a sandbar formed, stretching as wide as a football field. This obstruction made navigation difficult for boats commuting between villages due to the shallow waters. Despite the inconvenience for transportation, the sandbars piqued the curiosity of locals, drawing them to the restaurant built on a nearby house raft, creating flowing customers.


Jellyfish blooms on the beach of Kuala Penyu.

A more peculiar event happened at Kuala Penyu, Sabah, where thousands of reddish jellyfish were found washed ashore on the beach. According to Azhar Kasim, Director of the Sabah Fisheries Department, the jellyfish in question have been identified as Tomato Jellyfish, scientifically known as Lobonemoides robustus. It is a non-venomous and harmless species, but contact with the skin can cause itching. Azhar said that according to his department's research, the unusually high jellyfish population might be due to an increase in jellyfish reproduction following a rise in seawater temperature. A local remarked that this is the first time that jellyfish have washed up on the coast in such enormous quantities.


Notably, more frequent, longer and more intense heatwaves are predicted following the human-induced climate crisis. With Asia’s peril of warming up faster than the global average, rapid urbanisation is making our cities hotter and more dangerous during heatwaves, intensified by the loss of green space and unplanned development. This especially impacts poor and vulnerable populations, suggesting a need for better warning systems and planning to protect these populations.



Students under scorching hot weather in the Philippines.

Moreover, a survey of climate experts revealed that many foresee a "semi-dystopian" future characterised by famines, conflicts, and mass migration. This future is driven by extreme weather events of unpredictable intensity and frequency. The experts were also clear on why the world is failing to solve the climate crisis. A lack of political will was cited by almost three-quarters of the respondents, while 60% subjected the failure to the activities of major corporate industries. As a result, many of these scientists express profound despair over the future.


One can't help but question when will those in positions of power and wealth truly grasp the urgency of the situation and take meaningful action. Despite the bleak forecasts, it is important to persist in the fight against climate change.  Every fraction of a degree avoided in global temperature rise would reduce human suffering as even small changes in society can collectively catalyse large-scale action. Climate scientist Ruth Cerezo-Mota truly sums this up by affirming, “We keep doing it because we have to do it, so [the powerful] cannot say that they didn’t know. They can say they don’t care, but they can’t say they didn’t know.”




By,


Marsya Mahfis,

Journalist,

Charisma Movement 23/24.

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