Somneuk Atipanyo, a Buddhist abbot, stands in front of his temple south of Bangkok looking out to sea. Here, he says, pointing to the waves lapping at the shoreline, 20 years ago there was an enclosed pond in which villagers of Khun Samut Chin cultivated shrimp. In those days, the sea was not even close. “But then wind and waves became stronger,” he says. “The pond was flooded and many villagers had to move elsewhere.”
Lying barely a few kilometres south of Bangkok, the village can now only be reached by boat. As for the temple, it has waves at its base and is only protected from being washed away by a concrete wall. For many coastal farmers and fishermen, this is seriously bad news. Part of a multi-billion dollar industry representing the world’s largest shrimp exporting country, shrimp farms such as the one at Khun Samut Chin were established along Thailand’s coastal areas, eliminating protective mangrove forests in the process. This has enabled the sea to encroach steadily inland.
Footbridges and paths on piled-up earth walls lead from the temple to the village huts, where women work, shucking oysters for sale in the markets. Village head Visanu Khengsamut points to various aerial photographs that he has hung on the wall. They show how the village has changed over the past five decades. “In the last years, the winds and the waves have caused very bad erosion,” he explains. “The sea has swallowed up huge parts of the village.” At one point, he adds, the sea was more than a kilometre away; it is now at his front door. Originally, the village consisted of one thousand inhabitants, but with increasing amounts of land, plus their homes, lost to the sea, barely 200 remain.
Climate change: the region’s greatest risk
As with many other parts of Southeast Asia, climate change and its consequences are already well-established as a reality for both Thailand’s southern coastal areas and Bangkok itself. According to Loretta Hieber-Girardet, regional director of the United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) unit for Asia-Pacific, climate change has emerged as the region’s greatest risk. “There is either too little water, which leads to droughts or shortages affecting agricultural production,” she maintains. “Or there is too much, which means floods, landslides and other forms of disaster.”
According to a September, 2019, report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with input by over 130 scientists worldwide, rising sea levels in Southeast Asia are being driven by greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, heavy rainfall, warming oceans and the accelerated melting of ice in the polar regions. The report also asserts that coastlines are far more vulnerable to rising sea levels than satellite data initially appeared to indicate. Previous predictions, it maintains, underestimated land loss and population displacement by about one-third. While some scientists argue that such predictions are “too worst-case scenario”, more recent reports appear to agree.
The end result is that today more and more people are fleeing natural disasters than conflicts, which, until recently were considered to be the principal source of crises prompting people to leave. Now climate refugee and migrants represent a new phenomenon. According to both the IPCC and other studies, an estimated 237 million people in Asia now live in areas that can be expected to be flooded under sea water in the coming decades. As Hieber-Girardet argues, “governments urgently need to wake up to these threats by recognizing new realities and investing in preventative measures.” (See Global Geneva article on climate change, the race no one is winning)
Bangkok: A city sinking at the rate of 2-3 centimeters a year
A closer look at Bangkok itself underlines such points. Originally built on swampy land and layers of soft clay, this megacity roughly the size of New York is connected to the sea by the Chao Phraya River. In recent years, it has been sinking at the rate of two centimetres annually. Some scientists now believe that the rate has increased even to three centimetres. With its many canals, it was once considered the Venice of the East. But today, most of these canals have been covered over with roads and now form the principal basis of the city’s sewage system.
Prof. Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a Thai marine biologist with Faculty of Fish Sciences and an advisor to the government on climate issues, stands at a main downtown traffic intersection in the centre of Bangkok. Gesturing to the street, he notes that the government is currently seeking to expand its sewage network, including the installation of pumps. It is promising to solve the flood problem, he explains, “but there is still regular major flooding.” Other scientists, too, are critical of the government’s failure over the years to recognize that the city is sinking.
Regardless of such measures, the level of Bangkok, which now reportedly stands at barely 1.5 metres above sea level, continues to drop. During the monsoon season, which runs from May to October with torrential downpours, the water is simply not draining. Too much of the city surface has been tarmacked over or covered with concrete, primarily because of massive urbanization. And with the rising sea, the problem becomes steadily worse. According to the Thai Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA), another problem – similar to other megacities across the globe – is the tapping of groundwater by both industry and residents. While officially banned, the practice reportedly continues.
Jakarta: a lost cause resulting in the capital’s move to a new location
Even worse than Bangkok, Jakarta has been sinking so badly that it now ranks as one of the fastest subsiding cities in the world. Last summer Indonesian president Joko Widodo said that the capital would be moved to Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. With some parts of the city sinking at the rate of 10-20 centimetres a year, the World Bank recently estimated that 40 per cent of Jakarta has dropped below sea level, much of it – like Bangkok – caused by the pumping of ground water, thus preventing water from draining properly into the sea.
The solutions are evident. For Bangkok, there needs to be a complete change in the manner with which the city is dealing with urbanization. The city, argues Prof Thamrongnawasawat, urgently needs more green spaces and more visionary town planning. Furthermore, mangrove forests need to be re-planted, plus barriers and dykes installed in coastal areas. Only in this manner can the water be held back.
But the real problem, many point out, lies with the current construction boom for housing, offices and commercial zones, such as huge shopping centres. Any available green spaces, or potential open areas such as abandoned go-downs, railway sidings or even former farms, are fast disappearing. Many back zones in between the main thoroughfares remain relatively green with residential housing and gardens, but even these are being rapidly consumed by new development.
A need for new vision and ideas
One proposal is to uncover the klongs, or canals, but not use them as open sewers. Some canal rehabilitation is indeed happening, but scientists maintain that it must be done on a far more ambitious basis. This includes perhaps using open waterways for public transportation but also recreational purposes as a means of cutting back on road traffic, which has reached horrendous levels. While the overall situation remains bleak, there are some positive signs. In Khun Samut Chin, where the sea has doggedly eroded the land, its inhabitants have sought solutions. According to Visanu Khengsamut, they have sought to construct a bulwark against the rising waters. Standing on an earthen wall, the village chief points to rows of bamboo fencing stretching over kilometres. The outside rows serve as dams, he explains, which can stave off the water. The land behind has now formed into a wide, open swamp, where they are now planting mangroves. (See Global Geneva article on mangroves)
This, he explains, helps prevent further erosion by retaining land sediment. “It takes barely four years to grow an entire mangrove forest which will protect the village as long as no major storms occur,” maintains the chief. Even the government has noticed these improvements, he points out. It has now provided them with discarded electricity poles, which are more stable than the bamboo walls and should last longer. As urban planners are realizing, unless the sea is halted on the outskirts, the next to be flooded will be Bangkok itself.
Karin Wenger is the Southeast Asia correspondent for German-language Swiss National Public Radio (SRF) based in Bangkok. This article is based on a shorter broadcast produced earlier this year.