Parched farms, cancelled classes: Extreme heat scorches South-East Asia

Filipino student Daryl Siongco doing his homework at home in Quezon City, while his nanny dries his sweat, amid the warm weather on April 2. - ST /MARA CEPEDA

MANILA: Seven-year-old Daryl Siongco was sweating even while doing his homework at home in Quezon City, near the Philippine capital Manila, on Tuesday (April 2).

His state-run school had closed for the day because of the warm weather, which reached 35 deg C recently.

The second-grader, who has asthma, told The Straits Times that staying in school during the summer months of March to May was difficult because the classroom he shares with 39 other pupils has only two electric fans.

Due to the unbearable heat, the Department of Education has allowed schools to either hold remote lessons or cancel classes altogether.

The country is also in the process of shifting back to a June to March academic calendar, following complaints among students and teachers over holding classes during the peak summer season.

The academic year had moved to August to May in 2020 in a bid to synchronise it with that of other countries.

The El Nino weather phenomenon has brought hotter, drier weather over South-east Asia due to changes in sea surface temperatures and surface winds over the Pacific Ocean.

Though the phenomenon has begun to weaken, it will continue to fuel above-average temperatures across the globe, the World Meteorological Organisation said on March 5.

Temperatures topped 40 deg C in parts of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, while hitting at least 35 deg C in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines in the week of March 17 to 23, latest data from the Climate Prediction Centre at the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed.

In Singapore, several schools eased uniform regulations in late March to allow students to dress in their physical education attire until further notice, while a church in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City has been helping others beat the heat by giving out free iced tea to passers-by.

However, a 22-year-old Malaysian man died of heatstroke in Pahang on Feb 2, and a total of 27 other heat-related cases have been reported in Malaysia in the first three months of 2024.

The National Disaster Management Agency and the Malaysian Armed Forces are now considering carrying out cloud seeding in certain areas to help deal with the heat.

Recurring bush fires have also been recorded in the states of Selangor, Johor and Sarawak, with the disaster management agency saying that the fire and rescue department plans to focus on more than 650 hot spots nationwide to prevent more bush fires from breaking out.

“To tackle the heat, do not expose yourself under the hot sun in the afternoon, especially in outdoor areas, stay away from rivers and waterfall areas due to sudden water surge from heavy rainfall,” said Malaysia’s Meteorological Department deputy director-general Mohd Hisham Anip.

Malaysian business owner Suzanna Said, 49, said residents in her area in Langkawi had to endure temperatures as high as 39 deg C in the past week.

“Due to the hot spell, we have also had bush fires. Luckily for me, my homestay business was not impacted because of repeat customers,” she said.

Over in Thailand, the authorities said on April 1 that temperatures could reach 43 deg C to 44.5 deg C in the coming month, with some occasional relief due to summer storms. Still, the Thai Meteorological Department warned people to expect temperatures to be about 30 per cent higher than normal.

The extreme weather is also affecting farmers in the region, as scorching temperatures and dwindling water supplies parched large swathes of farmland.

Padi farmers in Kedah, Malaysia, face a heightened risk of water shortages and lower production yields.

Southern Vietnam, and its “rice bowl” in the Mekong Delta region, suffered a long heatwave in February, said officials. The resulting drought has made it difficult for farmers to transport their crops due to low water levels in the region’s canals.

Meanwhile, concerns over a rice shortage due to the dry weather led Indonesian President Joko Widodo in December 2023 to order the military to join farming activities and use idle military land for planting in a bid to boost domestic production and curb the rising prices of agricultural products.

Climate change expert Rose Perez, former chief of the Philippines’ meteorological agency, advised people to be more mindful of their government’s early warning signals for extreme temperatures.

She told the public to stay hydrated, and advised companies to give resting periods for labourers exposed to the warm weather during work hours.

These high temperatures are also a reminder to South-East Asian governments that the region remains “extremely vulnerable” to the impacts of climate change, said Dave Sivaprasad, South-East Asia lead for climate and sustainability at Boston Consulting Group.

“So, this is something that our region collectively and countries in South-East Asia need to start planning for. We need to build measures to adapt and build resilience,” he said. - The Straits Times/ANN

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