Over the past few months, Thailand has experienced a new record high temperature. The unprecedented extreme heat has never been felt before.
Thai authorities warned residents to avoid going outdoors for health reasons. Everyone suffered from the unbearably hot weather. But poorer community groups who must work outdoors as construction workers or live in substandard housing conditions with corrugated roofs and no ventilation could not protect themselves from extreme heat.
Sweltering weather also came with record-high electricity consumption and shortages of water. It is now estimated by the UN's World Meteorological Organisation that El Niño will develop later this year and severe droughts are expected. Looming periods without rain will exacerbate existing water management problems, with farmers likely to be asked not to grow off-season rice again.
In recent decades, Thailand has suffered from the worst flood and drought crises in its history. In 2019, Ban Phai community in Khon Kaen experienced an unprecedented inundation caused by tropical depression Podul. A few days before the arrival of Podul the municipality was struggling to supply water to the villages. The Ban Phai case is emblematic of nationwide problems.
Being ranked ninth in the extreme risk category on the Germanwatch index means Thailand is highly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. But the effects of climate change are unevenly distributed across different geographical locations and social groups.
Responding to climate change requires an understanding of climate impact, people-centred vulnerabilities and the future risks associated with a changing climate. But both national and local authorities are ill-prepared when it comes to unpredictable and extreme weather patterns and respond to climate problems with hard infrastructure and engineering approaches.
When it comes to climate change commitments, Thailand does not have a good record. In response to growing international criticism, the government has proposed and pushed for more ambitious targets, centring on the Bio-Circular-Green policy. Declared a national agenda item, the BCG Economy model, a pillar of Thailand 4.0, has gained prominence, overshadowing the urgency for more effective climate adaptation and resilience-building actions.
The same policy, Thailand 4.0, is driving the development of Special Economic Zones, an aspiration to lift the country out of the middle-income trap. Nong Khai SEZ in Sa Khai district is one of the 10 targeted SEZs. To fulfil the policy, the Chaiya community forest, an area of 178-rai in Sa Khai, has been taken away from the villagers, to pave the way for industrial development.
Thailand must rethink development strategies and plan for responses to climate crisis that protect all people, their wellbeing, and livelihoods. Thailand can collectively do more to lessen greenhouse gas emission. Building climate resilience and adaptive capacity through poverty reduction, just land and housing development, equitable water governance, and ecosystem-based approaches is urgent.
Not all climate change problems need technical, engineering solutions. For Sa Khai community villagers, returning their rightful access to the Chaiya community forest and maintaining the forest ecosystem services would be a solution to reduce exposure to climate risks. For Ban Phai community, improved early warning systems and coordinated efforts for disaster preparedness would have prevented death toll and hundreds getting stuck on their rooftops when Podul hit.
For the urban poor and informal settlements living precariously across cities, basic human rights such as better access to critical infrastructure and services, piped water, sanitation and drainage, and improved urban governance that involves inclusive urban planning, will reduce exposure to climate risks and increase resilience.
Not all hard infrastructure and engineering solutions can tackle climate problems. Building more reservoirs will not solve water supply shortages if it does not rain. Building seawalls to protect from erosion without understanding climate impacts on coastal processes and bypassing environmental impact assessments is not only creating new problems, but also leading to maladaptation.
Last year, the Natural Resources and Environment Minister announced a mission to establish a new agency to tackle climate change and introduced the Climate Change Act focusing on BCG. Promoting the BCG model as the only solution to climate change is not only a greenwash mechanism for big corporates to carry on with business-as-usual activities, but also lets the government avoid fixing social and political structural problems that are the root causes of climate vulnerabilities.
The new government needs to move away from business-as-usual thinking and planning. A response to the climate crisis needs to focus on human rights-based and ecosystem-based approaches. It is time to prioritise climate actions that account for systemic inequalities and compounding vulnerabilities of marginalised and vulnerable groups.
Pakamas Thinphanga, Ph.D, is an urban climate resilience expert leading a five-year EU-funded initiative, 'Strengthening Urban Climate Governance in Thailand' (SUCCESS), at the Thailand Environment Institute (TEI).