Municipal workers and residents clean up the streets after waters receded in the old city of Hoi An

Municipal workers and residents clean up the streets after waters receded in the old city of Hoi An, a UNESCO world heritage site, in the aftermath of Typhoon Molave. (Photo: Manan VATSYAYANA / AFP)

Technology and Climate Adaptation: How to Fill the Gap

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The adoption of digital technology can help Southeast Asian countries adapt to the effects of climate change.

While the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage, another worrying global issue has emerged: climate change. Considered a ‘code red for humanity’, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s latest report on 9 August 2021 has rung the alarm bells stronger than ever on the pressing expediency of addressing climate change. Following the accelerated warming in recent decades, the global temperature is already at 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and will soon reach the threshold of 1.5 degrees.

It is widely agreed that preventing global temperature rise is a matter of survival for climate-vulnerable countries. Because a substantial percentage of the population and economic activity in Southeast Asia is located near the coastline, the region is particularly sensitive to climate change impacts such as floods and typhoons. ASEAN member states have taken significant steps and made firm promises to accelerate the transition to renewable energy and ramped up their decarbonisation pathways in order to achieve a green recovery. However, the hard reality of higher global temperatures shows that what they have done might not be enough. Moreover, because the current climatic trend will last for decades, it is critical to focus on climate adaptation measures that reduce the damage and take advantage of any opportunities that may arise, apart from the need for climate mitigation that aims to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Despite being in a very early stage, digital technology is expected to be an effective support for climate adaptation.

One of the important applications of technology has been the creation of early warning systems (EWS) which allow a country to take prompt action to mitigate the effects of hazardous events. The effectiveness of EWS was proven in the Philippines in May 2020 when the country faced two disasters at the same time — the Covid-19 pandemic and Typhoon Ambo (also known as Vongfong). In the context of the pandemic which required strict adherence to health guidelines, early notifications combined with close coordination between national authorities helped minimise the typhoon damage. As a result, one-third of the people affected by the typhoon were pre-emptively evacuated. Agriculture, one of the most important sectors in Southeast Asia, is the most vulnerable sector to climate change. Collecting and sharing climate data through mobile platforms with farmers is an effective solution to increase climate change resilience in agriculture. For instance, it has made water management in Thailand more efficient and hence improved planting schedules.

Because a substantial percentage of the population and economic activity in Southeast Asia is located near the coastline, the region is particularly sensitive to climate change impacts such as floods and typhoons.

Integrating digital technology to adapt to climate change amid the 4th Industrial Revolution is especially important for the countries in the region. However, this is not an easy task. To respond effectively to climate change, accurate and complete information is required, which, in turn, necessitates the use of large amounts of data. This is a challenge for developing countries in the region. In fact, climate information is mainly derived from satellite data rather than locally sourced data which offers a more granular view of the micro-climatic condition. Right in the urban centres, the response to Thailand’s historic floods in 2011 was fraught with difficulties. This was due in part to an insufficient collection of disaster warning data, information systems, and flood risk maps which could have been disseminated to the public prior to the floods. Upgrading and perfecting the information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure system is essential to delivering timely information to the vulnerable. Nevertheless, investing in technologies — such as early warning systems, big data, an effective ICT network and infrastructure for better communications and the Internet of Things sensors for greenhouse agriculture — requires strong financial capacity which is also a barrier for less developed countries. The potential funding from international organisations has some promise. The US$300,000 grant from Switzerland to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP) Multi-Donor Trust Fund will be used to build standard operating procedures for multi-hazard warning in the Mekong Subregion.

While digital technology promises positive impacts on climate resilience, adopting digital technology is not an easy thing. In addition to financial and infrastructure barriers, the challenge of applying digital technology in climate change also comes from human issues since technology is still just a tool. To apply technology effectively, it is important to have well-trained human resources. In the mountainous areas of Northern Vietnam, the lack of professionalism of natural disaster prevention and control agencies has restricted the provinces’ capacity to warn of flash floods and landslides. Instead of full-time officers, this force is primarily part-time. The majority of them lack basic training in disaster prevention and control, making it difficult to coordinate across all levels and sectors in the locality. The Philippines example mentioned earlier illustrates the importance of close coordination among national stakeholders.

Furthermore, governmental efficiency in facilitating the allocation of resources to local infrastructure projects would help improve the effectiveness of digital technology applications in climate adaptation. Singapore’s success in water security is a case in point. For a country with water scarcity, Singapore has devised a system to efficiently coordinate agencies in monitoring and regulating the water cycle. In particular, strong legislation to protect water sources from pollution and contamination, anti-corruption measures to efficiently allocate resources, and high-quality human resources have laid a solid technological foundation for efficient water management.

In short, digital technology can play an important role in climate change adaptation. However, for developing countries, in addition to the financial support from developed countries and international organisations to invest in digital technology, these countries need to focus on training human resources and ensure, in particular, they need effective governments with a strong legal framework for the efficient allocation of resources. Only then can the potential of technology be leveraged to the fullest for climate change adaptation.

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