I visited one of Thailand’s most striking examples of the effects of global warming today. Ban Khun Samut Chin in the province of Samut Prakan is a village on the move, with residents forced to relocate further and further inland as coastal erosion leaves their previous homes under water.
Thousands of miles away, melting Himalayan glaciers are reportedly causing sea levels to rise and combined with land erosion, parts of the coast of southern Thailand are disappearing. As a recent WWF report on climate change suggests, “The human impact of climate change is devastating and the region’s poorest people are disproportionately affected“.
The report continues “The impacts of climate change are already causing migration and displacement of people, the scope and scale of which could vastly exceed anything that has occurred before.“. One doesn’t have to travel far from Bangkok (which is apparently sinking by 5-10mm each year and will be under 50-100 cm of water in 12 years) to find evidence of the human impact of global warming.
The most striking example can be seen at the temple of Wat Khun Samet. Once the heart of the local village, the temple is now regularly flooded and even the construction of a protective sea wall fails to keep the water out. The surrounding village has now retreated further inland, leaving the temple isolated, but the monks remain, intent on creating a tourist attraction from the “Temple in the sea”.
The Greater Mekong region is at greater risk from the effects of sea level changes than most coastal areas because many of the deltas lie at or only just above sea level. It obviously doesn’t take much of an increase in sea levels to create havoc on a large scale.
Local residents have been forced to retreat further inland as the sea claims their homes and schools. Some of the older residents have moved six or seven times. Local fisherman Khun Shao Phakfeng explained how he has moved home six times and now spends a great deal of his time helping with the construction of dams and elevated walkways. “The weather has changed too”, he said, “It should be colder at this time of year but it’s still really hot”.
Khun Shao Phakfeng’s home is one of just half-a-dozen which remain at the edge of the sea, protected by a low sea wall and optimistically built on stilts, which rise just a few feet above the water level. Opposite his home is the village school. Built on stilts, the school has relocated several times. The teachers and children will no doubt have to relocated once again if the water rises much further and classrooms are already just a few inches above the high-water mark.
However, despite the seeming inevitability of their plight, the villagers work hard to protect their community and livelihoods. The head of the village has written countless letters to local and national government officials and has even penned a request for assistance to Al Gore. With the assistance of her husband she has built a small museum and information centre, containing copies of photos and correspondence from the last 35 years. Aerial shots of the coastline reveal how far the sea has encroached and show how far the villagers have had to move.
Despite what seems like a gloomy outlook, there’s a sense of quiet resilience from the villagers, which is borne out by the fact that it’s now possible for visiting climate change researchers, professors and scientists to find accommodation at the local home-stay on stilts, right above the rising water. Proof that every cloud can have a silver lining?