Myanmar very vulnerable to climate change effects: Historian

He is pessimistic about his country's future, citing its poverty and weak state institutions

Myanmar is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the effects of climate change, and is grossly unprepared to deal with the consequences, warns historian Thant Myint-U.

The author and conservationist was in the United States recently to speak on his latest book, The Hidden History Of Burma, which examines race, capitalism and the crisis of democracy in Myanmar.

In an interview for the online video and podcast Asian Insider, Dr Thant told The Straits Times that the threat of climate change tipped his ledger towards pessimism about his country's future.

"I think whatever we think of the ledger in general, perhaps it comes to 50/50," he said.

"When you add on what is almost certainly going to be the impact of global climate change on Burma, I think it's hard to be too optimistic right now.

"What we know is that as the earth warms another 2, 3 degrees (Celsius) over the rest of this century, the impact on Burma could be catastrophic in terms of rising sea levels, extreme heat, extreme weather events," he said, using the former name of Myanmar.

Dr Thant added: "This is a country where in the late 2000s, Cyclone Nargis killed 140,000 people in a single night.

"We already see the migration of people out of the dry zone where there's been severe drought."

A much richer country, "or even a slightly richer country in South-east Asia like Thailand, I think, it might be possible to cope with some of these things", he said.

"But for a country as poor as Burma, in the state that it is, with conflict, with poor state institutions, or weak state institutions, I think it's going to be really tough to see how it's going to be able to manage over these next 20 to 30 years, what is almost inevitably going to happen in terms of climate change," added Dr Thant.

The Global Climate Risk Index 2020 released last Wednesday at COP25 - the 2019 United Nations Climate Conference in Madrid - lists Puerto Rico, Myanmar and Haiti as the countries with the highest weather-related losses in the past two decades.

Myanmar was listed partly because of Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

Ms Laura Schaefer, index co-author with the Germanwatch think-tank, said: "The climate summit needs to address the (lack of) additional finance to help poorest people and countries in dealing with losses and damages. They are hit hardest by climate change impacts because they lack the financial and technical capacity to deal with the losses and damages."

The Myanmar Climate Change Alliance - a body that straddles the UN, the government, and civil society - notes that Myanmar's population and assets are largely exposed to severe climate-related weather events because of their location in delta and coastal areas, and in the country's central dry zone. Most of the 51.2 million population, according to Myanmar's 2014 census, live in climate change-exposed areas.

The capacities of Myanmar's people, assets, institutions and policies to prevent or mitigate the effects of such events are still limited and need to be strengthened, the Alliance says on its website.

Dr Thant, in his book, concludes that given Myanmar's internal fault lines and weaknesses, warning signs are flashing. "Burma is running out of time," he writes.

"The country needs a radical agenda to fight inequality and prepare for the climate emergency to come."

Find out more about climate change and how it could affect you on the ST microsite here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2019, with the headline Myanmar very vulnerable to climate change effects: Historian. Subscribe