Climate Maladaptation: Climate Action and Challenges in Southeast Asia

Climate change has emerged as the central issue of our time. Over recent decades, public recognition of its imminent dangers has grown significantly, especially as the window for effective action narrows, while the impacts of climate change are increasingly evident worldwide. This escalating situation is underscored in the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2023, which describes the “increasingly serious threat” posed by climate change-induced disasters across the Asia-Pacific. Notably, South-east Asia faces heightened risks, with Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam ranking among the top 10 nations for the number of disasters recorded in 2022.

Climate action has increasingly become central to discussions about climate change, focusing especially on how individuals, communities, and nations can both adapt to and mitigate the swiftly escalating impacts of climate change globally. However, it is equally important to discuss the potential negative outcomes of these climate actions, known as climate maladaptation and malmitigation. These terms denote actions that not only fall short of mitigating climate change and adapting to climate risks but could also inadvertently worsen them.

Hydropower and water storage dams
Hydropower and water storage dams are key components of climate action projects in Southeast Asia, a region that seeks sustainable solutions to meet its growing energy demands and manage its water resources amidst the challenges posed by climate change.

Southeast Asia has heavily invested in hydropower as a renewable energy source to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. Countries like Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia have developed extensive hydropower facilities, capitalising on their river systems. Hydropower projects, such as those on the Mekong River, supply substantial energy to the region, supporting economic growth and regional energy needs. However, these projects are not without controversy, as they can disrupt local ecosystems, displace communities, and alter river flows, affecting downstream agricultural activities.

For example, the human security impact of the collapse of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Dam in 2018 sparked debate anew on risks associated with Mekong dams as thousands of indigenous and local communities were displaced. The construction of Lower Sesan 2 Dam caused the displacement of nearly 5,000 people, mostly indigenous peoples and other ethnic minorities who have lived in villages along the Mekong riverbanks for generations.

The operation of massive upstream dams has resulted in the decline of water flow, according to scientists and environmentalists. The lack of vital sediment would be felt severely in the future when all mega-dams being built in the Upper Mekong River Basin are completed. The inadequate water flow to the agricultural plains of the Mekong Delta, known as Vietnam’s rice bowl, means decreasing level of rice production. This has severely affected agricultural productivity in the delta, illustrating the negative, compounding consequences of both mega-hydropower dams and climate change effects.

Beyond energy production, water storage dams in Southeast Asia play crucial roles in water supply and flood management. These dams help manage water resources, ensuring steady supply during dry periods and mitigating flood risks during rainy seasons. For instance, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam use dams to address water supply shortages and regulate water for agricultural irrigation, which is vital for food production and rural livelihoods. Like hydropower, the construction and operation of water storage dams must balance environmental and social impacts, particularly concerning the displacement of local populations and impacts on local wildlife and natural habitats.

Stakeholder involvement and environmental and social safeguards
As part of climate action efforts, both hydropower and water storage dams are seen as dual-purpose solutions that address energy security and water management. They contribute to national goals of reducing carbon footprints and enhancing resilience to climate variability. Nevertheless, the deployment of these projects in Southeast Asia generate multifaceted challenges, including environmental degradation, social resistance, and cross-border water governance issues. The success of these projects as sustainable climate action initiatives depends on careful planning, stakeholder engagement, and adherence to environmental and social safeguards.

In order to fully understand the impact of a planned climate action measure, it is important to engage and consult with communities on the ground who would likely endure unintended consequences. There is a critical need to incorporate the diverse perspectives and agency of stakeholders including local communities in planning, implementing and building climate action projects. By gathering insights from diverse stakeholders, policymakers can better anticipate the impacts, thus enhancing the likelihood of successful outcomes in climate action endeavours.