Prevention is better than cure. That truth is obvious when it comes to personal health, but it also applies to the health of the environment, on which we all depend.
Only 20 per cent of farmland – 30 million rai – is irrigated in Thailand, which prides itself on being a land of agriculture.
Most rivers, canals and reservoirs have remained unchanged for decades, merely undergoing periodic dredging under a vast range of agencies – from the Royal Irrigation Department, Interior Ministry and Defence Ministry to local administrative bodies.
But in the light of drastic changes in our climate which have resulted in both longer droughts and excessive rainfall, we need fresh investment for water management and improvement works if we are to avoid disaster.
Thailand learned a hard lesson in 2011. The devastating floods that year were blamed on a combination of high rainfall, urbanisation and insufficient drainage and flood-protection systems.
According to the World Bank, the disaster cost Thailand’s economy about Bt1.4 trillion – over half of the country’s annual budget. Meanwhile, the budget allocated to the Irrigation Department was less than Bt1 billion per annum through the 1990s.
Given our track record, it is almost impossible to see how Thailand can cope with global climate change.
The Bt350-billion water-management plan initiated by the Yingluck government following the flood disaster is now under review by the National Council for Peace and Council (NCPO). The junta is also expected to review urban planning, following speedy urbanisation and construction on floodplains in many provinces, particularly Bangkok.
The NCPO’s vow to tackle the problem in a sustainable way is more than welcome as the public coffers can no longer cover the damage.
Still, there are concerns that the junta, like its predecessors in power, is merely paying lip service to the issue of climate change – especially given its policy on energy prices. By reducing those prices and keeping them lower than the global level, the NCPO is encouraging reckless consumption and higher carbon emissions – a major cause of global warming.
Thailand must do more to build its resilience to climate change, as lives are in danger and the country’s natural resources insufficient to compensate for the losses it brings. Insurance coverage is also low. The series of climate-related disasters across Asia in 2011 did US$370 billion (Bt11.8 trillion) in damage, but only $16 billion worth of affected property was insured. That explains why many industrial estates in Thailand decided to erect high floodwalls, ignoring objections from nearby communities.
The dangers from climate change are clear and present.
Thailand covers a mere 500,000 square kilometres of the planet’s surface, but the shift in atmospheric conditions is global and having a knock-on effect on us.
However, we have the power to help the world reduce the negative impact while at the same time strengthen our resilience to climate change.
Thais are now familiar with “El Nino” and “La Nina”, Spanish words describing the two systems of ocean currents and temperatures that cause variations in regional climate patterns.
Data on the El Nino-Southern Oscillation show that the periods of warmer-than-normal and cooler-than-normal ocean water temperatures have shortened, leading to higher frequencies of drought and floods in recent decades.
Seasonal temperatures have also been disrupted. (Anyone notice how Thailand’s past few summers have been hotter, followed by unusually cool conditions when the rains arrive?)
Climate change has prompted many aid organisations to switch their focus. Visiting Bangkok in 2012, Helene D Gayle, co-chair of the World Economic Forum on East Asia said that her organisation had moved from emphasising relief to strengthening communities’ resilience to natural disasters. Gayle, also chief of humanitarian organisation CARE USA, noted that 200 million people in Asia are affected by climate change each year, and the need was to ensure “they are not wiped out every time disasters strike”. Aside from funding early-warning signals, CARE is helping vulnerable communities alter their way of life through initiatives such as introducing flood-resistant livestock.
Bindu Lohani, Asian Development Bank vice-president for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, told a March 2012 environment forum in Bangkok: “Public lenders and private investors cannot continue to channel billions of dollars to massive infrastructure projects without factoring in the realities of warmer temperatures, rising sea levels and more violent storms.”
Notably, it is policymakers who must do more: they are the ones with the power to yes or no to a particular project. But if their wider goal remains fuzzy, our chances of mitigating the impacts of climate change will remain as small as ever. Brace yourself for more disasters and even greater damage.