Ecosystem Adaptation to Climate Change: The ASEAN Experience

In the early part of the year 2009, severe weather news in various parts of the world shocked the unsuspecting inhabitants of the areas. In Australia, during the two epic five-setter tennis matches by Rafael Nadal of Spain towards his first Australian Open title, the country had a heat wave of above 40 degrees Celsius in the southwest of the country including the cities of Adelaide and Melbourne. About 28 deaths were reported to have been caused by the searing heat (Reuters, 2008). In Europe, a strong storm with 190 kilometers per hour (kph) wind speed battered northern Spain and southwest of France killing 15 people on January 24, 2008 (Fichot, 2008). In Southeast Asia, the city of Cagayan de Oro in southern Philippines experienced a wave of flash floods that started on January 3 and killed at least nine people (Inquirer Bureaus, 2009). Described as unusual, unprecedented, worst and gravest in such areas, the three incidents are symptomatic of climate change that grips our world today. The intensity and frequency of extreme weather occurrences are said to be the dire consequences of climate change. And there will be more, more severe, if climate change is not tackled.

How is Southeast Asia adapting to climate change? Are there regional responses to climate change?

This paper seeks to explore the extent and experiences on ecosystem adaptation to climate change in Southeast Asia.

What we know about climate change

Our understanding of climate change has now improved since it became a buzzword. We owe our enlightened knowledge to the numerous scientists and experts who are instrumental to shift the buzzword from theoretical to real global threat and challenge. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which co-won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 was recognized for its scientific work on climate change.
The 2007 IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) presents a comprehensive view on climate change which is referred to as, “a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g. using statistical tests) changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. It refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity” (IPCC, 2007).

The AR4 provides a “schematic framework of anthropogenic climate change drivers, impacts and responses” and their linkages centering on the relationship between earth and human systems (See Figure 1 below). Not only anthropogenic sources bring about climate change, natural disturbances such as wildfires and volcanic eruptions, in part, also result to a change in climate.
There is no doubt that the world is getting warmer and warmer. The AR4 indicates that since 1850, eleven of the twelve warmest years registered in the record of the global surface temperature were from 1995-2006. The increase in the average surface temperature from 1906 to 2005 is 0.74°C. This increase in temperature is caused by the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG), particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Human activities from the sectors of energy, transport and industry are said to be the main emitters of GHG.

Notable impacts of climate change

Whether we like it or not, the way we live our lives is being altered by climate change. Our choices are being shaped by it. The impacts of climate change are already in our midst. From the familiar things and gadgets we use to places we know, they are being influenced and determined by factors that reinforce, mitigate, and adapt climate change. For example, the home appliances and other products
Figure 1. A schematic framework

Source: Climate Change 2007: A Synthesis Report. (

have been made compliant to become “environmentally-friendly” and phase out the “ozone-depleting gases” such as hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).

Due to climate change, the global sea level has risen at an average rate of 1.8 mm per year since 1961 to 2003. Low-lying and coastal areas are at risk of constant flooding and erosion, and wetlands may be altered (Ouano, 2007).

On peatlands

Covering over 4 million km2 spread in 180 countries all over the world, “peatlands are important natural ecosystem with high value for biodiversity conservation, climate regulation and human welfare” (Parish et. al., 2007). Climate change impacts on peatlands through desertification and degradation. If not managed properly, peatlands contribute to climate change in a major way. Degradation of peatlands exhales carbon dioxide from peatland drainage and fires of “at least 3,000 million tonnes per annum or equivalent to more than 10% of the global fossil fuel emissions” (ibid, 2007).

On biodiversity

The Biodiversity Synthesis by the 2005 Millennium Assessment Reports (MAR) highlights the significance of biodiversity on various aspects of human life, from security, social relations to freedom of choices and actions. Biodiversity offers ecosystem services through its provisioning services (food, medicines), regulating services (filtering water and air, moderating weather), and cultural services (recreational spaces, tourism, heritage). The MAR notes that one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss and ecosystem services change is climate change. For the last 50 years, biological extinction is unprecedented and depletion of one-fourth of earth’s top soil, one-fifth of its agricultural land, and a third of its forests have occurred (Djoghlaf, 2008).

Interestingly, the MAR also mentions that one of human activities that exert pressure on biodiversity is agriculture.

On agriculture and food

Agricultural productivity, food availability and crop yields will be adversely affected by climate change. On Adaptation to climate change in agriculture, forestry and fisheries: Perspective, framework and priorities of the Interdepartmental Working Group on Climate Change of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the impacts of climate change are divided into two categories; the biophysical impacts which include, among others, changes in the quality and quantity of land, soil and water resources, rise in sea temperature, and the physiological effects in the quality and quantity of crops, livestock, pasture, and forests; and the socio-economic impacts which are decline in production and yields, fluctuations in the global market prices, and among other things.
Brought about by climate change, “increased intensity and frequency of storms, drought and flooding, altered hydrological cycles and precipitation variance have implications for future food availability” (FAO, 2007).

Ecosystem resilience

There is an inherent capacity of ecosystems to resist and adapt to climate change known as ecological resilience (Prato and Fagre, 2006). Our ecosystem has this inherent capacity which makes our habitat livable in spite of the harmful changes it undergoes and confronts. “Ecological resilience concentrates on the ability of a set of mutually reinforcing structures and processes to persist” and allows “the change required to move the ecosystem from being organized around one set of mutually reinforcing structures and processes to another” (Holling et. al., 2006).

Climate change places lots of pressures on the ecosystem’s capacity. “When this capacity is exceeded, the ecosystem can change in ways that may not be socially and ecologically acceptable” (Prato and Fagre, 2006). That is why there is a need to reduce the vulnerability of ecosystem and strengthen its ecological resilience through mitigation and adaptation approaches to climate change. Without any consequential action on climate change, the impacts are going to be severe in the coming years. Mitigation approaches are intended to reduce the ecosystems’ vulnerability and GHG in the biosphere while adaptation approaches are meant to enhance ecosystems’ ecological resilience to climate change.

Ecosystem adaptation

Ecosystem adaptation aims to deal with the impacts that are already present in the ecosystem, recover from the impacts and build the resilience of the people and ecosystem.

In the position paper by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to the Fourteenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP14) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it states that “adaptation to climate change should now be a central element of climate change policy at local, national, regional and international level.” Furthermore, it “calls States to mainstream ecosystem-based adaptation as an integral element of overall climate change adaptation in poverty reduction strategies and development planning.” (For the purpose of this paper, ecosystem adaptation and ecosystem-based adaptation would be treated as the same)

The IUCN defines ecosystem-based adaptation as “a range of local and landscape scale strategies for managing ecosystems to increase resilience and maintain essential ecosystem services and reduce the vulnerability of the people, their livelihoods and nature in the face of climate change” (IUCN, 2008). Ecosystem-based adaptation calls for a collective action among stakeholders including the governments, communities, environmental groups, development organizations “to plan and empower local action that will increase environmental and community resilience to the changing climate” (ibid, 2008).

ASEAN experiences on adaptation

There are ten countries that comprise ASEAN as a regional bloc, namely, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is now a chartered regional organization which aims to integrate member-countries into one rule-based and dynamic community. The region is home to biodiversity hotspots which host about 20% of the known species in the world. As in any other regions, ASEAN is facing the grave risks and threats of climate change.

As a regional intergovernmental organization, ASEAN has instituted regional agreements, initiatives and strategies to combat environmental concerns such as transboundary haze through ASEAN Agreement of Transboundary Haze Pollution, peatland management through ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy, and conservation of protected areas through the ASEAN Declaration on Heritage Parks.

Outside the ASEAN organization, there are “regional” efforts of ecosystem adaptation. The Rice Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a form of farmers’ field school that provides knowledge and understanding of ecological principles, monitoring crop cycles, destructive and friendly pests, and biodiversity. Started in Indonesia, the IPM is now benefitting the Vietnamese and Filipino farmers through increased crop production and reduction of pesticides inputs (Ooi, 2000). Another effort with “regional” scope is the Ecoregion conservation in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam. Sharing similar or interrelated ecological characteristics and processes, the three countries of ASEAN, under Ecoregion conservation, are “to develop long term conservation programs that ensure the persistence of healthy ecosystems and species by mainstreaming conservation with natural resource management” (Hodgdon, 2000). Another ecoregion project that includes Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines is the Ecoregion Conservation Plan in the Sulu-Sulawesi marine ecoregion which is part of the Coral Triangle, the richest source of marine biodiversity in the world.


Climate change is going to cause more extreme weather events worldwide. The continued warming of the earth’s surface temperature is changing or threatening to change the landscapes and seascapes, triggering biodiversity loss and decline in crop yields, agricultural productivity and food supply, and peoples’ lifestyles. While mitigation approaches to climate change are reducing the vulnerability of ecosystem by cutting emissions of GHG, adaption approaches are necessary to adjust to the anticipated impacts of climate change. Ecosystem adaptation is a useful strategy to help communities and ecosystem become more resilient to the climate change impacts. Adaptation strategies must be cost-effective, participatory and sustainable to be able to effectively address the present and anticipated impacts.
ASEAN has recognized the need to combat the impacts collectively as a region. As a regional response to the threats and challenges of climate change, it has initiated and instituted plan of actions on various environmental concerns that are shared by and common to some if not all ASEAN member-countries. Other efforts with “regional” coverage are contributing to the task of making communities and ecosystem adaptive to climate change.

Although these efforts and initiatives may not be specifically directed to tackle climate change, they are, nevertheless, directly addressing its impacts on communities and ecosystem. If that is so, they are ecosystem adaptation with which we can suitably confront the impacts of climate change, not just in ASEAN, but in our world. What we do in ASEAN will have an impact on our task to mitigate and adapt to climate change.


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