Will Southeast Asia be able to cope with more flooding and rising waters?

Residents paddle boats, in a flooded village, after heavy rain caused by a tropical depression, in Hanoi. REUTERS/Kham

Sea level rise is a climate change impact that will affect some regions more than others. Changes in sea level is not like filling up a bath tub where there the rise in water will be evenly spread throughout. In reality, local topography and ocean currents are two of the major factors that will determine the increase of sea level in an area. In some regions, land may be sinking due to several factors, and can increase the rate of sea level rise. Many coastal lands are also reclaimed and are already at sea level or below it. 

Sea-level rise in Southeast Asia

Latest research by Sally Brown from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research shows that the impacts of sea level rise in South East Asia will affect (insert number of people). Southeast Asian cities like Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, and Hanoi will all be affected by rising sea levels.

Her work shows that at 3.6 degrees Celsius of global warming, Southeast Asia will experience 0.41 meters of sea level rise by 2100. Without adaptation measures, roughly 11.5 million people per year in the region will be at risk of flooding.

The research shows different scenarios of sea level rise based on global increase in temperatures by 2100: 3.6 °C, 1.7 °C (66% chance of staying at 1.5°C), 1.36 °C (66% chance of staying at 2°C), and 2.14°C (50% chance of staying at 2 °C). These scenarios were generated using the Warming, Acidification, and Sea-level Projector (WASP) Earth system model, a model which makes projections of global mean surface temperature, surface ocean acidification and global mean sea level rise for different carbon emission scenarios. The calculations included Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) from ice melt and ocean thermal expansion.

The research also calculates how many people will be at risk from flooding, both with adaptation and no adaptation. In her work, Brown defines adaptation as building new dikes as a form of coastal defense. Dikes, or seawalls, protect human settlements from coastal flooding and erosion. Adaptation, which lessens people’s vulnerability and reduces harmful impacts of climate change, proves crucial. For example, in Vietnam, no new sea walls mean more than six million people will be at risk from floods. But, building new dikes as a form of adaptation can reduce that number to 195,000.

Other countries have successfully implemented adaptation measures for floods. The Netherlands is below sea level and sinking. The Dutch have legal standards for design of flood defences. However, sea walls are not the only flood solution for the Dutch.

Harold van Waveren, Dutch senior government adviser, explains to The New York Times, “We can’t just keep building higher levees, because we will end up living behind 10-meter walls,” he said. “We need to give the rivers more places to flow. Protection against climate change is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, and the chain in our case includes not just the big gates and dams at the sea but a whole philosophy of spatial planning, crisis management, children’s education, online apps and public spaces.”

More recently, the Dutch government has started building floating homes and according to journalist Michael Kimmelman have designed their city infrastructures — garages, parks, plazas — as reservoirs “for when seas and rivers spill over.”

Here I take a look at four countries and how they are preparing to face more floods in the coming years. How ready is the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam for rising sea levels.

Philippines — Metro Manila already sinking


At 3.6C of global warming, the Philippines will experience 0.4 meters of sea level rise, and without adaptation, will affect 1.2 million of the population per year. According to Filipino geologist Dr. Mahar Lagmay, Metro Manila area is already sinking due to groundwater extraction. Coupled with sea level rise, the region of 12 million people will be affected with more flooding and inundation of coastal areas. Already, the region experiences flooding due to torrential downpours, but with sea level rise and more rainfall, this will become worse.

“As the land around Manila Bay sinks and the sea level rises, the flooding is spreading not only in the city, but also in the surrounding provinces,” Greg Bankoff from Auckland University says in an interview with Correctiv.

In 2009, typhoon Ketsana caused floods seven meters high, submerging 80% of Metro Manila under water, and displacing 300,000 people.

Adaptation, which seeks to reduce vulnerability and builds the capacity of people to adapt to climate change, will be crucial in ensuring the population is ready to face the waters. However, Lagmay does not believe that the country’s climate change agency is capable.

“From what I’ve seen, they have only been focussed on conferences but they have done nothing on the ground. They don’t even have policies for probabilistic modelling. What does that say of our climate change programme?,” Lagmay said.

ARANETA RIVER: Members of a local government rescue team paddle their way through floodwaters on Araneta Avenue in Quezon City following continuous rains brought about by tropical depression Henry. Photo: Boy Santos/Philippine Star

Probabilistic modeling is a model that incorporates random variables and describes different outcomes and how likely they are to occur. However, according to Lagmay, climate change planning in the Philippines has been largely based on historical records of hazards and not future climate change impacts. This, he said, has led to maladaptation, citing typhoon Haiyan as an example.

“Haiyan happened and it was bigger than what we knew. Since the planning was based only on what we knew, we were surprised when the storm surge happened two to three meters on land,” Lagmay said.

Typhoon Haiyan brought about a storm surge that killed at least 7,000 people.

“When you do probabilistic modelling, you are able to see hazards bigger than what the community knows and you can see the dangers brought by climate change. If we don’t use for planning maps that depict bigger things that community knows, you are missing on adaptation measures that are needed. What will happen if a bigger event happens than what the community knows? They will be caught by surprise and a disaster will happen,” Lagmay added.

Indonesia – Jakarta is the fastest sinking city in the world and is building a sea wall


An archipelago with over 17,000 islands, Indonesia faces the threats of the rising Java Sea. Some of the islands have already sunk. According to Freddy Numberi, former Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister of Indonesia, four islands disappeared in 2004 after a tsunami devastated Aceh province.

With 3.6C of global warming and no adaptation to sea-level rise, Indonesia will experience 0.41 meters of sea level rise, and will put more than 2.2 million people at risk per year.

‘According to experts, there will be a sea level rise of up to 90 centimeters by 2050, which could drown 2,000 small islands in Indonesia,’ said public policy specialist Achmad Poernomo in The Jakarta Post.

In the country’s capital, Indonesia, the threat is similar to the Philippines’ Metro Manila — not only are sea levels rising, the land is also sinking. In fact, Jakarta is said to be sinking faster than any other city in the world. Ten million residents of the capital are exposed to floods. In 2013, parts of Jakarta were submerged under water after a monsoon storm flooded the city with 2 meters of water.

In 2014, the government launched a $263 million project to build a sea wall along Jakarta’s coast.

Flooding in Jakarta

“If we don’t do anything, in 2050 Jakarta will sink due to rapid ground subsidence and rising sea level,” said Chairul Tanjung, former Coordinating Minister for Economics, said in an interview with Reuters.

However, the sea wall is only built to resist high tides and rising sea levels until 2030. What happens after?

In the same article from The Jakarta Post, Poernomo underlines the importance of tackling disasters resulting from climate change. “The fisheries and maritime affairs minister Susi Pudjiastuti has written a letter, asking all regional heads to manage natural resources sustainably,’ he said.

However, Sudibyakto from the Gajah Mada University’s Disaster Management programme, believes that there is not enough expertise in disaster mitigation to address the level of disaster risks in the country.

Thailand — a culture of water


Sea level rise, coastal erosion, and shifting clay soil are factors that threaten Bangkok. According to researcher James Syvitski, geology and oceanography professor from the University of Colorado Boulder, the Chao Phraya Delta, which runs through Bangkok to the Gulf of Thailand, faces one of the most severe sea level rise globally.

Thai culture is intertwined with water — it is embedded in religious rituals and celebrations. The city is filled with floating markets. Thailand’s New Year, called Songkran, means transformation or change. During Songkran, water is poured over Buddha statues to wash away sins and bad luck. Streets are closed as water fights ensue among the young and old.

But with the rising sea levels and more floods, will water continue to be a part of celebrations or will cause grief?

In October 2011, severe flooding due to the monsoon season and tropical storm Nock-ten resulted to 815 deaths and three missing. Around thirteen million people were affected, with 76 provinces declared as flood disaster zones. In some areas, the floods persisted until January 2012.

As with Jakarta and Metro Manila, Thailand’s capital is sinking. That, coupled with rising sea levels, will make Bangkok a new Atlantis by 2100 says Smith Dharmasaroja in an interview with The Guardian.

The government has been criticised for little action addressing the problem.

In an interview with Channel News Asia, Dr. Anond Snidvongs from Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA), says that implementation of solutions to prevent Bangkok from sinking are costly.

“To protect Bangkok from being submerged, there are costs. Costs aren’t just financial but also the impact on other provinces. Floodwater has to go somewhere. So what are we going to do with affected people? And will everyone in Thailand bear the costs or just Bangkokians?”, he said.

In another interview with VOA News, Snidvongs laments the lack of political will of the Thai government to address the issue,

“At the moment most of the policy at almost every level in Thailand doesn’t take into consideration climate change at all. They’re not aware that even right now we have extreme events but many of the design or plans are based on the assumption that everything is constant,” he said.

A new park was recently designed to hold Bangkok’s flood waters. Landscape architect Kotchakorn Vokraakhom designed the Chulalongkorn University Centennial Park which opened in 2017. The park, aside from being an ampitheatre and a playground, also collects water and reduces urban heat island. According to this TED article, the park can hold one million gallons of water.

Children play at the Chulalongkorn University Centennial Park

“With the retention pond and lawns, we can hold the flood water as long as we want if the entire city is flooded,” Voraakhom says in the TED interview. “Then, eventually we can drain the park into the public sewage system when all the other flooding in the city has been drained.”

Vietnam – the most vulnerable country SE Asian country to sea level rise


With over 3,200 kilometres of coast line and the Mekong Delta situated in the south, Vietnam faces the worst threats of sea level rise among Southeast Asian countries. At 3.6C of global warming and 0.41 meters of sea level rise, more than six million Vietnamese people per year are at risk due to flooding. Additionally, the most fertile agricultural lands are on the Red River and Mekong Delta, areas that are susceptible to sea level rise. Seventeen million people live on the Mekong Delta alone.

The Vietnamese government has a policy called “living with floods,” maximising the good effects of flooding and minimising its bad effects instead of stopping them from happening.

In an interview with UNDP Vietnam, Vo Thanh Danh, a researcher at the Institute of Climate Change Study at Cantho University, says, “A flood adaptation policy is better than eliminating them. Even floods bring more benefits than losses if we can live with and adapt to floods.”

As part of the programme, villagers are encouraged to switch to aquaculture from agriculture, and children are taught how to swim.

A woman wades through a submerged street at the UNESCO heritage ancient town of Hoi An after typhoon Damrey hits Vietnam
A woman wades through a submerged street in the UNESCO heritage town of Hoi An. The death toll from a typhoon and ensuing floods in Vietnam reached 61 on Monday, and the government said some reservoirs were dangerously near capacity after persistent rain. KHAM/REUTERS

But are these enough to protect the Vietnamese people from a future disaster?

Last year, 389 people were killed due to floods and landslides. Just this week, tropical storm Son Tinh have brought torrential rains causing flooding and landslides in north Vietnam. Twenty seven people are reported dead, 12,000 houses have been submerged under water, and 90,000 hectares of crops have been destroyed.

As global temperature rises, climate change impacts will only worsen. Will Vietnam be ready to face them?


Southeast Asia, a region surrounded by water and where millions of people will be affected by sea level rise, doesn’t seem to be ready for the rising water that is to come. There is much more to learn and to be done. Whether it is the lack of political will to address the issue, or the lack of capacity to plan and implement climate change adaptation measures, one thing is for sure — if the people are not ready, it will be a disaster in the making.

Global temperatures continue to rise, and with it, the risk of more floods and sinking lands. The higher the global temperature, the worse it will be for already vulnerable countries. Whether or not we reach our 1.5 – 2 degrees Celsius target will be a matter of survival for many people in the Southeast Asia region.

Scientists, academics, and politicians have questioned the feasibility of reaching the said goal, especially with countries currently unable to commit to carbon mitigation that would stop global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial period.

However, in a conference in London last July 1, Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has reminded the public the importance of the 1.5 degrees target, especially for vulnerable countries.

“The reason for 1.5 degrees is absolutely crucial. It is the only temperature that gives 50% chance for the most vulnerable populations to survive the effects of climate change. Two degrees would mean 95% of Pacific Islands would go under water, 30% of Bangladesh goes under water, 30% of Florida goes under water, New York gets completely flooded. If New York gets flooded, they will know what to do. What do we do about Bangladesh? What do we do about Pacific Islands going under water? This means these people will have no home. Talk about forced migration, talk about tragic. Those people have zero responsibility in the past, present, and future. 1.5 has got to be where we work forward,” said Figueres.

“I hear everyone say it’s impossible, we’re just going to have to make it possible. To go at this with a defeatist attitude and accept that we have no other options but to go to 2 degrees or three or four, is inadmissible,” Figueres added.