Southeast Asia is usually seen as an idyllic area full of tropical beaches and sunny weather, but the reality of the region is more complex than that. Home to 8.5% of the world’s population, the World Economic Forum also describes it as the region that experiences the most natural disasters in the world.
Why is Southeast Asia Prone to Disaster?
Perhaps the main reason why Southeast Asia in particular is prone to such disasters is due to its location. The region sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a geologically and volcanically active area that stretches in a horseshoe-like basin across the Pacific. The Pacific Ring of Fire houses over 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes, including Mt. Mayon in Bicol, and is home to 90% of the world’s earthquakes. It’s the location of 452 known volcanoes, both active and dormant, with 127 active in Southeast Asia alone.
Much of Southeast Asia also faces the Pacific Ocean, a hub of warm water where storms tend to develop. Rising global temperatures and a changing climate have led to typhoons of greater frequency and intensity in the last decade. This paper published on Nature Geoscience found that typhoons that struck Southeast Asia increased in intensity by 12 to 15 percent. 2018’s Typhoon Mangkhut is one such example, with a highest wind speed clocked in at 285 km/h. 2014’s Typhoon Haiyan reached a whopping 315 km/h, making it the strongest typhoon and second-strongest tropical cyclone in the world.
Vulnerability to disasters is due not only to geographic location, but also to the ways people live. Southeast Asia in particular is full of young, rapidly urbanizing economies where large populations are squeezed into poorly-designed cities. Densely-populated urban areas like these, especially those near the coast or riversides, are more vulnerable to natural disasters.
Despite its location and vulnerability, Southeast Asia is described as lacking a culture of preparedness for natural disasters.
A Harvard Humanitarian Intiative study on households living in the area of the West Valley Fault in the Philippines found that 47% had done nothing to prepare for disasters in the last five years. In addition, the Jakarta Post quoted tsunami expert Abdul Muhari as saying that Indonesia lagged behind other countries in maintaining a tsunami early warning system. This, despite the frequency of natural disasters in Indonesia, which saw at least 2,426 natural disasters in 2018 alone.
The Republic of Indonesia is the world’s largest island country, with over 17,000 islands and 34 provinces. It’s also the fourth most popular country in the world, with a population over 261 million. It shares borders with Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and Malaysia. As an archipelagic country, it is also bordered by the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Celebes Sea, Java Sea, Banda Sea, Timor Sea, and Arafura Sea.
Due to its large number of islands, Indonesia has about 54,720 km of coastline. It also has 127 active volcanoes, with about 5 million people living within the danger zones.
With its long coastline, proximity to the Pacific Ring of Fire, and large number of volcanoes, Indonesia is no stranger to disasters. The Straits Times recently reported that at least 2,426 natural disasters hit Indonesia in 2018, with a toll of at least 4,231 people. This made 2018 the country’s deadliest year in over a decade, according to the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB).
Flooding in Indonesia
Landslides and floods are common in Indonesia, particularly during the monsoon months of October to April. In fact, floods in the capital of Jakarta are expected to worsen in the coming years, thanks to a combination of sinking land and rising sea levels. Major floods in the country include the 1942, 1960, 1976, 1996, 2007, and 2013 floods.
In particular, the 2007 floods caused infrastructure dmage and state revenue loss of at least USD 572 million. At least 190,000 people fell ill due to flood-related illnesses, while 80 people were killed due to the disaster. In addition, at the time over 70% of Jakarta’s total area was flooded, with some parts of the city up to four meters under water. The 2013 floods in comparison had a death toll of 47.
Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in Indonesia
Due to the high number of active volcanoes in the country, Indonesia is particularly vulnerable to seismic activity. In 2019 the country saw more than 11,500 earthquakes, almost double the annual average of the past decade. Of those 11,500 earthquakes, 297 were stronger than a 5 on the Richter scale.
Major earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in recorded history in Indonesia number in the dozens. Perhaps the most famous volcanic eruption is the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, which destroyed over 70% of the island and caused it to collapse into a caldera. Six of the top ten strongest Indonesian earthquakes have occurred near Sumatra and along the Java Trench. These include the 1797, 1833, 1861, 2004, 2005, and 2007 earthquakes. In particular, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake was the third largest ever recorded and caused the planet to vibrate as much as 10 millimeters.
Tsunamis in Indonesia
The frequency of tsunamis in Indonesia correlates with the number of major volcanic eruptions or earthquakes in the country. In particular, significant tsunamis in Indonesia have followed the 1797 Sumatra earthquake, 1833 Sumatra earthquake, 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, 2010 Mentawai earthquake and tsunami, 2018 Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami, and 2018 Sunda Strait tsunami.
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami is one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, with a death toll of over 200,000 in 14 countries. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused the contamination of water sources with saltwater, a loss of livelihood for countless fishing communities, and severe damage on ecosystems such as mangroves, coral reefs, forests, and coastal wetlands, among others.
Malaysia consists of 13 states and three federal territories, separated by the South China Sea into Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia. Peninsular Malaysia shares a land border with Thailand, while East Malaysia shares a land border with Brunei and Indonesia. The country has a population of over 30 million, making it the world’s 44th most populous country.
Malaysia has general been spared severe natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and typhoons. However, it does face major floods, landslides, and severe haze. It has also experienced several extreme weather and climatic events in the past years, including monsoonal floods and thunderstorms. Malaysia sustained a total damage of almost USD 2 billion in the two decades between 1998 and 2018.
Flooding in Malaysia
Floods in Malaysia are regular natural disasters, which usually happen every year during the monsoon season of October to March. Inadequate drainage in many urban areas in the country also exacerbate the effects of monsoon rains. Notable floods in the country include the 1971 Kuala Lumpur flash floods, 2006 Shah Alam flash floods, 2006 Johor state flash floods, 2007 Johor state flash floods, 2007 Kuala Lumpur flash floods, 2007 Peninsular Malaysia flash floods, 2010 Kedah and Perlis floods, and 2014 Peninsular Malaysia flash floods.
In particular, the 2014-15 Peninsular Malaysia flash floods affected more than 200,000 people, with 21 killed. These floods have been described as the worst in decades, with effects on healthcare, education, the economy, and social services.
Landslides in Malaysia
Landslides in Malaysia are also regular natural disasters, mostly occurring along hillsides and steep slopes. Notable landslides include the 1993, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2006, 2011, 2015, 2016, and 2018 landslides. Of these landslides, the highest number of fatalities was counted in the August 1996 landslide, where a mudflow in Kampar, Perak killed 44 people.
The Republic of the Philippines is an archipelagic country situated in the western Pacific Ocean. It consists of about 7,641 islands broadly categorized under the three main geographical divisions of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Additionally, it is the world’s fifth largest island country and has a population of 100 million. The Philippines is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, and is bordered by the Pacific Ocean, Philippine Sea, West Philippine Sea, Sulu Sea, and Celebes Sea.
The World Bank Group lists the Philippines as one of the most natural hazard-prone countries in the world. With social and economic costs of natural disasters in the country growing due to population growth, unplanned urbanization, environmental degradation, and global climate change, reducing the risk of disasters is seen as key to achieving development goals in the Philippines.
Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the Philippines
Due to the Philippines’ location along the Pacific Ring of Fire, the country has frequent seismic and volcanic activity. Earthquakes of smaller magnitude happen frequently due to the meeting of major tectonic plates in the region. Of these earthquakes, the largest was the 1918 Celebes Sea earthquake, which had a magnitude of 8.3 on the Richter Scale. This earthquake triggered a large tsunami that eventually caused 52 casualties, and is considered one of the most destructive quakes in the country.
Some major earthquakes also include the 1924 Southern Mindanao earthquake, 1948 Panay Island earthquake, 1976 Mindanao earthquake and tsunami, and 1990 Luzon earthquake. The 1976 Mindanao earthquake and subsequent tsunami led to the deaths of an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 people. Additionally, the 1990 Luzon earthquake caused the deaths of 1,621 people and damage to infrastructure of at least Php 10 billion.
The most major volcanic eruption in the Philippines in recent history was the mount Pinatubo eruption on June 15, 1991. It had a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 6, the second-largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th entury after the 1912 eruption of Novarupta in Alaska. Additionally, the arrival of Typhoon Yunya brought a lethal mix of ash and rain to the surrounding towns and cities. The death toll of the eruption was 847 people, mostly caused by the collapse of roofs under accumulated volcanic matter.
Typhoons in the Philippines
According to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), the Philippines is prone to tropical cyclones due to its geographical location. You can read more about this in our post on ‘Why Does the Philippines Suffer from Typhoons’.
Previously, we wrote about the top 10 worst typhoons to ever hit the Philippines. The overall deadliest typhoon to affect the Philippines is believed to have been Typhoon Haiphong of 1881, which is estimated to have killed up to 20,000 people. It’s closely followed by Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, which had 6,352 confirmed casualties and 1,071 missing persons. Typhoon Haiyan was also the strongest landfalling typhoon ever recorded, with wind speeds of up to 315 km/h.
James Gonzales is a Filipino-American travel enthusiast and writer currently based in the Philippines. After living and working in New York for 10 years, James decided he wanted to see more of the world and leave the city behind. In the course of saving up for what would become an epic trip across Asia, he wrote about previous traveling experiences for various travel websites and publications based in the Lower East Side.
James focused on journeying through the Philippines in the hopes of understanding his roots, and began Daydreaming in Paradise to share his thoughts and experiences. He’s always looking for like-minded travelers to trade stories and swap tips with, and he hopes you’ll join him on his journey.