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Southeast Asia ‘In a Frying Pan’ as Extreme Heat ‘Rewrites Climatic History’

Source: The Telegraph

Inside the small classroom, 50 teenagers are struggling to keep cool. One of the two ceiling fans is broken, and the free-standing alternatives reach only a handful of the students.

“Imagine all 50 people, sharing those fans,” says Heart Coña, a grade 11 pupil in General Santos City, on the southern tip of the Philippines, where a punishing heatwave has driven temperatures above 40 degrees.

“The heat here is like standing under the blazing sun on a scorching summer day, except it lasts from morning ‘till evening,” the 17-year-old adds. “It’s the kind of heat that makes you feel like you’re melting, where seeking shade provides little relief as even the air feels hot to breathe.”

The temperatures have not only given Heart and her classmates headaches and heatstroke, but left their education in “disarray” because in-person lessons have been frequently suspended due to the heat and humidity.

They’re not alone: across south and southeast Asia, millions of children have been hit by Covid-style school closures and health warnings as the region suffers from a deadly, weeks-long heatwave that’s rewritten “climatic history”, according to analysts.

“Hundreds of records [have been] brutalised all over Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines and all Asia,” Maximiliano Herrera, a climatologist and weather historian tracking temperatures, wrote on X (formerly Twitter). “We are seeing what three centuries of climatology never saw.”

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‘Total insanity’

The torrent of records are being set thick and fast. In Vietnam – where one reservoir is blanketed by dead fish – temperatures hit 44C on Tuesday, its hottest April day in history. Neighbouring Laos has hit a new high of 43.2C, while the mercury has surpassed 48.2C in Myanmar.

And in Thailand it’s been “total insanity”, with records “beaten and re-beaten every day”, Mr Herrara says. A high of 44.2C was seen in the northern region of Lampang and temperatures have risen above 43C in 16 provinces.

But temperature alone does not capture the intensity of the weather: also factoring in humidity, it is the heat index that reflects how hot it really feels outside.

When humidity is high, it’s much harder for our bodies to stay cool as it hinders the evaporation of sweat. This can lead to exhaustion, heat stroke and death.

According to the heat index, cramps and exhaustion are “likely” if the value tops 40C; anything above 50C is considered “very dangerous”, given the risk of heat stroke. The elderly are especially vulnerable as their internal regulators for body temperature control are less effective than the young.

In the Philippines – where authorities have cancelled in-person classes at 47,000 schools – the index registered 53C on Sunday in Iba, a small city 150 miles north of the capital Manila. Readings have surpassed 40C in more than 30 regions.

Meanwhile in Bangkok – where air-conditioned shopping centres are crowded, shade-providing umbrellas are a hot commodity, and the Telegraph’s recent motorbike taxi driver wore oven gloves to protect against hot handlebars – the heat index hit 52C this week.

“The entire Indo-Pacific [is] in a frying pan,” says Dr Roxy Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. 

April is traditionally a hot season for the region, but this year the El Niño weather phenomenon has “pushed temperatures to record highs,” says Prof Theepakorn Jithitikulchai, an economist and climate expert at Thammasat University in Bangkok. 

“El Niño also contributes to delayed rainfall, potentially leading to droughts,” he adds.

This is on top of climate change. According to the World Meteorological Organization’s latest report, released last month, Asia is warming faster than the global average – almost doubling since the 1961-1990 period. The agency added that the continent was the “most disaster-hit region from weather, climate and water-related hazards in 2023”.

“Unfortunately the world, including southeast Asia, is not prepared for the impacts that are coming,” says Nicholas Rees, a climate change programme manager at Unicef’s regional office for East Asia and Pacific in Bangkok.

“It will take collective effort at a large scale to put in place the systems that are needed to manage the impacts of climate change.”

A railway worker sprays water on tracks warped by the heat in the southern Thai province of Nakhon Si Thammarat
A railway worker sprays water on tracks warped by the heat in the southern Thai province of Nakhon Si Thammarat CREDIT: HANDOUT/State Railway of Thailand/AFP via Getty Images


‘Widening the gap’

But with resources and funding to tackle these issues limited, there are concerns that the varied region’s infrastructure will struggle. Energy grids are a particular concern – in countries including Vietnam and the Philippines, there have been outages as cooling devices have driven huge demand for power. 

The hot temperatures will also worsen already entrenched inequalities.

While the wealthy work in air conditioned offices, study in air conditioned schools and live in air conditioned houses, this is simply unavailable or unaffordable for millions.

“I’ve never experienced this before, I feel I am sat with a hot hair dryer at my face,” says Ann, 51, who sells lottery tickets on the side of the busy Phahonyothin Road in west Bangkok. With two children at home she has no choice but to work in the punishing heat.

“It is very difficult to sit here all day in this temperature,” she says, holding a colourful rattan fan. “I am very, very hot.”

High temperatures are also proven to slow down the brain’s cognitive functions. In one 2020 study from the United States, researchers found pupils performed worse on standardised tests if they had been exposed to high temperatures in the year before the exam.

The paper concluded that a 0.55C warmer school year reduced that year’s learning by one percent – an impact that could be almost entirely eradicated if the classroom had air conditioning.

A passenger uses a portable electric fan to cool herself as she rides a jeepney during a heatwave in Manila
Passengers use portable electric fans to themselves on a jeepney in Manila CREDIT: TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images

“Climate change will widen the learning gaps between hot and cool countries,” Josh Goodman, an economist at Boston University and co-author of the report, told Reuters.

Jay-Em Estrella, a science teacher at a private school in Quezon City in the Philippines, agrees.

While his classes have struggled, the outlook for public schools reliant on fans has been even worse, and he’s concerned about the long-term consequences for human development.

“We just barely recovered from the lockdowns … and now classes are getting suspended for something that we could’ve been a bit more resilient about,” he says. “We’re already regressed so much in our education system … [the heat] is like having another dent in an already beat up car.”

Of course, such challenges are not unique to southeast Asia. The outlook is similar in South Asia: India saw its longest April heatwave, with a “code red” warning issued for Kolkata as temperatures reached 46°C; in Bangladesh, where the mercury rose to 43.8°C on Tuesday, 33 million pupils have been affected by school closures.

This spring, Africa has also suffered severe heatwaves.

In South Sudan, schools closed to some 2.2 million students in late March when temperatures soared to 45C, with similar temperatures recorded in Burkina Faso last month. On April 3, Kayes in Mali recorded 48.5C.

Local hospitals reported a surge of deaths in the sweltering heat. Gabriel Touré hospital in Bamako, Mali, recorded 102 deaths over four days in early April, compared with 130 deaths over the entire month in 2023. Many of the dead were aged over 60, while power cuts and the Ramadan fast added to people’s vulnerability.

Rising heat-related mortality is of particular concern. Ko Barrett, deputy secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, told a recent conference that extreme heat had become a global “silent killer,” adding that it is “widely under-reported”.

“So the true scale of premature deaths and economic costs – in terms of reduced labour productivity, agricultural losses, and stress on the power grid – is not accurately reflected in the statistics,” she said.

The extreme temperatures reported in Mali and Burkina Faso were a 1-in-200 years event, but if global temperatures warm further, they could become much more common, according to researchers at the World Weather Attribution, a collective of international climate scientists.

This will bring more disruption, ill-health and death.

In the Philippines, Heart says her only option is to “endure”.

“The intense heatwave has thrown our education off track – because of it, we can’t conduct classes like we used to. Many of us are falling ill,” she says. “Plus, not everyone has the means to access education online.

“My classmates and I aren’t wealthy at all, so whether we’re at school or at home, the situation remains equally difficult. We don’t have any choice but to endure all of it.”

TITLE PHOTO CREDIT: RUNGROJ YONGRIT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock