The people of Klog Pla Krai are used to water, the village floods every year but this year the floods came two months early. Before the rice could be harvested and the preparations for the inundation could be made. We travelled with Climate Action Network Thailand to some of the affected communities to see first hand the work that environmental NGO Forest & Farming Foundation was doing to help the local people respond to the changing climate.
Pisanoluk is at the confluence of the rivers and has been flooding in the wet season for centuries. In recent years the flooding has become more severe. I was interested in finding out why. The relief centre at the library in Bangrakam was a hive of activity when we arrived. Volunteers and soldiers were loading bottles of water and bags of food into trucks for distribution to those in need. Inside the hall surrounded by stacks of supplies a community meeting was underway to discuss the response to the unfolding crisis.
Bangrakam is the poster child of flood relief in Thailand. The government heavily promotes the “Bangrakam model” it is using in the area to illustrate that it is actively responding to the situation. The town receives a lot of media attention and NGOs are attracted to the town. The Bangrakam model is essentially the amalgamation of all government funding in attempt to avoid inter-agency conflicts. The focus of the model has been on engineering solutions in order to flush the water out of the area as quickly as possible. However this fails to solve the problems of the watershed as a whole, and merely pushes the problems elsewhere. Bangrakam’s fame attracts a large number of agencies in diverting the focus from other areas which are equally affected. The other villages we visited explained that they had been told to wait for relief funding because Bangrakam’s needs were greater, or that they wanted their own “model” so they could get as much help as Bangrakam.
In contrast to the governments top down approach the Forest & Farming Foundation is trying to enable the communities themselves to plan and execute their own response to the floods in order to provide for their immediate needs but also to build resilience within the community to ensure they are better adapted to deal with future flood events. In the hall local people were discussing the way forward, both in terms of the immediate response and a plan for recovery but also mechanisms they can use to adapt to reduce the impact of such events in the future. As the meeting continued Tor and Jeab from the foundation brought us up to speed with the discussions. The immediate concerns were to avoid duplication in the distribution of aid by the numerous agencies working in the area and also the collection of reliable data to facilitate the provision of emergency funding. In order to establish those eligible to receive funding the government relies on aerial photos and the official household count neither of which are totally accurate. Local people on the ground will be able to verify entitlements.
After lunch we took to a boat to see for ourselves the full extent of the flooding. We travelled up the swollen river past houses with tide marks on the walls illustrating the height the waters had reached. Some place were almost entirely submerged with just the apex of the roof and TV aerial protruding from the muddy waters. We passed through a line of trees and bushes and I realised we were leaving the river and motoring over the submerged fields (1.5 to 2 meters below us). The brown waters stretched as far as the eye could see, the expanse so great that waves were being stirred up by the wind. We passed through another double line of trees and it was only after spotting the yellow sign with the arrow that I understood it was the road and not another river. We reached the village of Klog Pla Krai. Every house submerged up to the roof, with boats tied up outside and the water nearing the tops of the electricity poles, yet the residents seemingly unperturbed hanging out and watching us sail by. The waters come every year so they simply have 2 floors one for the dry and one high up in the roof for when the rains come.
However this year the rains were different, they started two months early which meant that the floods arrived in July instead of September. This is bad for a number of reasons. During the flood residents are unable to earn an income and so have to support themselves for twice as long. All the preparations and planning is based around the flood lasting for 2 months not 4 and there is a lack of supplies. Most seriously of all, the rice crop from which the villagers derive the bulk of their income had not been harvested when the rains arrived. Pisunulok has a pretty extreme climate, flooding during the wet and very dry between November and March leaving only a narrow window suitable for rice cultivation. Rice has traditionally been cultivated from May to August and has been harvested just before the rivers burst their banks.
This is the second time in living memory that the rains have come early the last time was in 2000 which was also followed by months of drought. In order to adapt to this increased variability in weather patterns the community has started trials of traditional rice varieties which are adapted to flooding. Called “floating hair” rice it has much longer stalks than the commercial varieties that have largely replaced it, ensuring that the grains are not damaged by rising waters.
So what is the cause of these changing weather patterns? Is climate change involved? Climate scientist have always been cautious when attributing a particular weather event to global warming, it is very difficult to prove for a specific case particularly for precipitation events which are dependant on a greater number of variables. Recently scientist have changed tack, just this week Donald Wuebbles of the University of Illinois suggested that “There’s really no such thing as natural weather anymore. Anything that takes place today in the weather system has been affected by the changes we’ve made to the climate system”
Last year’s floods in Thailand were the worst in 50 years with 230 dead, 1.4m Ha agricultural land inundated and a million tonnes of rice destroyed. This year 93 have died in flash flooding and mudslides with over a million impacted and there is still a month of the wet season remaining. A recent report by the Asian Development Bank on climate change in South East Asia indicated that increased flooding was to expected in a warmer world. That rainfall would increase particularly during La Nina years, that tropical storms would become more powerful and that individual events would become more intense. Weather patterns are also likely to become more variable with droughts also becoming an increasing feature.
However like most environmental problems there is not one single cause acting alone to exacerbate the flooding in Thailand. Rather there are a number of other factors which are as important as climate change in contributing to the problem. The first of these is deforestation. The forest acts as a giant sponge soaking up the water and releasing it slowly into the rivers. As we saw for ourselves on the way to Chiang Mia huge swathes of forest have been cleared to grow maize and other crops in the northern water shed. This has massively increased the run off into the rivers and the accompanying erosion is silting up the dams reducing their ability to control the flood waters. Land clearance may also be contributing to the droughts during the dry season as the lower evapotranspiration creates less rain bearing clouds. Also adding to the floods is the construction boom underway in Thailand. Roads and buildings have a dramatically higher run off than fields or forests, as Thailand rapidly urbanises more and more water runs straight into the rivers. Lax planning controls mean that construction often blocks or diverts water courses further increasing the problem. According to Tor the Thai government uses climate change as a convenient cover so it’s not required to deal with these environmental problems. By suggesting that climate change is the cause of the problem it obviates the need to question it’s role in driving land clearance and unrestrained urbanisation. These factors are also ignored in the media commentary (at least the English language ones that I’ve seen) which focuses purely on government efforts (or the lack of) in providing engineering solutions.
The next village we visited was perhaps having it even harder than Bangrakam. Bangrakam floods every year whereas the last time Tambon Jom Thong flooded was in 1995. It was heartbreaking listening to the villagers describe how not only their homes and paddy fields were inundated but also their remaining source of income their orchard which was just coming to maturity after being replanted following the previous floods. Whilst green leaves remained on the trees, they told us they would die as the waters receded. However it was also inspiring witnessing the resilience within the community that the project was helping to foster. The project aims to help the community by providing them with the tools to develop their own plans both in terms of immediate responses and longer term adaptations to limit the impact of future flood events. It also aims to develop capacity of the village by enhancing the skills and leadership of individuals. It was particularly heartening to see the leading role being played by women in helping the community to respond to the crisis. Two of these women firstly described the damage to the village with the aid of a map they had prepared. Of the 147 houses in the village 130 had been flooded. They then explained some of the proposals they had come up with in response. The most immediate suggestion was establishing a nursery for vegetables which could be planted as soon as the waters receded providing a quick and much needed source of income. A more longer term suggestion was the construction of improved flood protection, however that would require significant funding and negotiation of beaurocratic hurdles all of which would take time. It was also mentioned that the construction of flood defences in a neighbouring area may have contributed to the floods in this village by diverting water from fields which flooded previously on to their crops. Which is a perfect example of the fact that technical fixes to a problem often create new problems or simply shift the existing problem elsewhere. Flood defences can if not well planned just move the water more quickly somewhere else, and if they fail the consequences can be severe. So the villagers also proposed researching flood tolerant species which could be planted in their orchards which would be able to survive any future flood events. The community gave us such a warm welcome, the village head even came to meet us, and the passion with which they described their plans for the future makes me sure that working together they would be able to get through their current difficulties.
That evening we experienced the full intensity of the rainfall for ourselves on the drive back to our hotel. It was unlike anything I have ever seen before and take it from me I’m from Scotland – I know my rain. It was like driving through a waterfall. The windscreen wipers were on fast but that didn’t make any difference, visibility was virtually zero. The road became a river and traffic slowed to a crawl. Half and hour after it started the rain was gone leaving behind huge lakes of water.
The next day we visited a community that had been on the receiving end of a similar intense storm which caused landslides and flash flooding. The locals suggested that recent clearing of forested hillsides and their replanting with rubber plantations had contributed to the problem. It was great to see the activists from Forest & Farming Foundation in action and the techniques they used to try and get everyone participating. They started by getting people to explain how their communities had been impacted and then worked together to produce a map showing this. Animated discussion ensued with people piping up to correct the cartography of those at the front. For Onto the process was just beginning but after seeing what the Foundation has achieved in Tambon Jom Thong I have no doubt that given time they two will develop the skills and acquire the tools to help them mitigate the impact of future floods.
It was a privilege to be given such an insight into the affects that Thailand’s floods were having on communities. I am indebted to the Forest & Farming Foundation & CAN Thailand for enabling it to happen and taking the time to share their experiences with us. Particular mention must go to May who drove with us from Bangkok and who’s tireless translations both cultural and linguistic brought everything alive for us. Without her the trip would not have been possible. I am also incredibly grateful to all the people in the villages we visited who made us feel so welcome despite being in the midst of a crisis. The whole experience was incredibly moving. Seeing such strength and determination to continue in the face of so much destruction and devastation. Witnessing such togetherness and resourcefulness shows the human capacity to adapt to a changing climate and I have no doubt that the communities we visited will grow stronger and more resilient. But they can only adapt so much. For the sake of all such communities which are vulnerable to climate change we all have a duty to ensure the climate we are creating is one which can be adapted to. At the moment we’re way off course so it’s time to get moving….
If you would like to make a donation to help the communities that we visited recover get in contact and I will send you the bank account details.
Farewell lunch with our hosts