This article is part of Evolving Threats to Southeast Asia’s Maritime Security, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

How has the threat of climate-induced disasters evolved over the last 20 years?

Natural hazards originating from the oceans such as tropical storms and tsunamis that are induced by submarine earthquakes and landslides have led to significant losses and damages in Southeast Asia. Since 2012, storms and tsunami have accounted for about 10 percent of natural hazards in the region and contributed to 14.5 percent of annual economic losses caused by natural hazards. The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 was the most devastating ocean-originating disaster in the recent history of the region, with an estimate of 350,000 people killed or missing. The triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami and soil liquefaction in central Sulawesi of Indonesia in 2018 led to over 4000 deaths and 1.3 billion US in losses.

Climate change has been identified by many Southeast Asian elites as one of  the region’s top challenges. In the past six decades, Southeast Asia has had more extreme weather events such as heatwaves and strong monsoons, leading to more natural hazards such as droughts and floods. This trend is projected to continue and worsen in the future. A recent study by a Dutch-based research team finds that tropical regions, such as Southeast Asia, are disproportionately vulnerable to a high risk of permanent flooding by the sea due to the rising sea levels. Climate change therefore is likely to induce dire impacts on regional maritime security.

What are the primary governance tools that are being used in response to climate-induced disasters?

Southeast Asian governments have established and strengthened their respective national disaster agencies since the Indian Ocean tsunami, such as the National Disaster Management Agency in Indonesia and the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council in the Philippines. These national disaster management institutions are mandated to lead and coordinate disaster-related work, improving the effectiveness of response to disasters of different types, including in the maritime space.

Despite improved national capacities, the region’s need for international assistance and cooperation will continue to exist and likely increase due to climate change. Southeast Asia has established a regional disaster governance system to support national efforts and engage international partners, featuring the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response and related institutions and mechanisms such as the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre). This system enables ASEAN to respond to major disasters under one regional banner and coordinate international responses in some cases. For instance, the AHA Centre was entrusted by the Indonesian government to manage international assistance from civil society and the private sector response to the 2018 triple disasters (earthquake, tsunami, and liquefaction) in Sulawesi, although it is still in question other ASEAN member states might do the same.

Apart from civilian agencies, the military, including the navy, plays a critical role in responding to disasters, particularly in the immediate aftermath. Sealifts are an important means of transport when the need for relief is significant but humanitarian access is blocked by damage to critical infrastructure. However, military disaster response in ASEAN is primarily bilateral rather than multilateral as in the civilian domain, despite the existence of various multilateral mechanisms to facilitate multilateral confidence-building activities, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus.

A good example of this tendency was the 2018 triple disaster. The Indonesian military dealt bilaterally with foreign counterparts on deployment of military assets, standing in contrast to the aforementioned AHA Centre’s coordination of non-military international responses. This preference for bilateral military engagement in disasters is not uncommon in the region and influenced by an adherence to sovereignty and non-interference while being strengthened by rising nationalism.

What are the primary harms climate-induced disasters poses to regional stakeholders?

Coastal communities are among those most affected by the effects of climate change. Rising sea levels, for instance, increase the vulnerability of coastal cities and communities to flooding, erosion and inundation. This is a particular concern to Southeast Asian countries with long maritime borders and high percentages of population living in the coastal areas. In an extreme climate scenario, 90 percent of the population in Vietnam will be affected by the rising sea levels. In addition, the rise of sea levels also carries the risk of changing maritime boundaries, which will have implications for access to marine resources and navigation rights. This risk has the potential to fuel existing maritime disputes or to give rise to new ones.

Another threat posed by climate-induced disasters is resource constraint facing disaster management authorities and the military. As the likelihood of having to undertake concurrent disaster response operations has become greater due to climate change, countries will face growing demands for disaster response and competing priorities. Climate change will shift the operating environment of disaster response, leading to different skills requirements, equipment, and facilities. Extreme heat, for instance, presents additional challenges for personnel and equipment in relief operations. This is a likely scenario in Southeast Asia given the projection of more heatwaves in the future. Rising sea levels and extreme weather events threaten the accessibility, availability, and safety of maritime infrastructure and assets. Stakeholders should take into account the changing operating environment in personnel training, resource prioritization, and logistic planning.

How has maritime awareness developed to reduce climate-induced disasters?

One of the most challenging parts of disaster response is the need for timely and accurate assessments of what infrastructure has been destroyed and what victims face the greatest need. For this reason, surveillance aircraft are some of the first assets deployed to a disaster zone. Improved satellite technology and internet-based reporting tools that are less reliant on land-based physical infrastructure will become more useful as costs drop.

Maritime domain awareness is also playing an increased role in forecasting disasters and mitigating their impacts. A clear example of such technology was in the tsunami warning systems installed around the Indian Ocean after the 2004 disaster. In the face of climate change, environmental monitoring and data analysis is essential to predicting future weather patterns and understanding the locations more vulnerable to climate-inducted disasters.

Unfortunately, the linkage between maritime security and climate-induced disasters has been under-explored. The current focus on the impact of global warming centers on the marine ecological system and the contribution of marine environmental pollution to climate change. While action to cut greenhouse gases emission is crucial, adaptation, mitigation and preparedness by regional stakeholders should also be emphasized, as different climate scenarios are increasingly likely to become realities in view of the high number of extreme weather events in different parts of the world this year.

What additional context is necessary to understand the maritime security challenges associated with climate-induced disasters?

While Asian countries prefer to see climate change as a developmental agenda, a security lens is increasingly being adopted by international and regional forums such as the United Nations Security Council and the Shangri-La Dialogue. Green defense is a major theme of climate security in industrialized countries, and focuses on the vulnerabilities of their militaries to climate change, including the navies.

The United States, European Union, and the United Kingdom have respectively issued official documents that examine how climate change will impact their national security and elaborate countermeasures. Actions such as cutting carbon emissions and strengthening adaptation and resilience of their forces and facilities ranks high in these documents. In addition, meeting increasing demands to support disaster response at home and overseas is highlighted. This trend in the respective defense establishment of the industrialized countries will have implications on the planning and training of their navies.

In Southeast Asia, the discussion on climate security and defense is still nascent at best. Countries in the region have yet to release official documents dedicated to the issue, although some started to incorporate climate change in their national security policies. In view of the growing recognition of the security implications of climate change and the specific challenges facing Southeast Asian countries, particularly the militaries, the region should consider developing a better understanding of the security implications of climate change in the maritime space.

About Lina Gong

Lina Gong is a Research Fellow with the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Programme at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre), S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Her research interests are in non-traditional security studies in East Asia, humanitarian affairs, China’s foreign policy, and global governance.