We need climate adaptation now
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We need climate adaptation now

The announcement made by the Thai Meteorological Department (TMD) is a grim warning of record-high temperatures. The entire nation is bracing for scorching hot weather this month, with forecasters saying temperatures look set to reach 44.5 degrees Celsius in some parts of the country. For example, the mercury level in the Thoen district of the northern Lampang province reached 42C on Monday and yesterday, the hottest temperatures for this year’s summer so far. Meanwhile, the TMD reported the temperature of Muang district was not far behind at 41.8C.

What is more worrying is that the rise in temperature is likely to be a new normal, not a cyclical climate issue. This week, leading climate expert Assoc Prof Seree Supratid — director of the Center for Climate Change and Disasters at Rangsit University — publicly warned that Thailand could see temperatures hit 50C in the next 60 years.

Such an unprecedented quick rise of mercury level is a display of climate change impact. Some of the effects currently felt in Thailand are the warming land and ocean temperatures. Back in January, many countries already experienced record-breaking temperatures, and February 2024 was the warmest February on record globally. The seasonal hot and dry weather this summer, combined with the effects of El Niño, is going to result in lower-than-usual rainfall by 30%.

To deal with drought, local farming communities have been warned to brace for water shortage, and government agencies responsible for water resource management are scrambling to secure water by digging underground water and digging up ponds in local areas. Yet, the effects of extra hot and dry weather are far more than just water scarcity. The solution for climate change is more than just finding more water to combat the heat.

Indeed, the impacts of climate change differ between social groups and sectors.

For example, members of low-income communities in both rural and urban areas are likely to experience greater socioeconomic and health impacts of the unusually hot weather. Outdoor workers, such as construction labourers, street vendors and farmers, must endure the heat during the day and without respite at night as they live in poorly ventilated shelters. A portion of their daily income will also be spent on buying water at higher prices.

Economic sectors also face different impacts, and the solution is not water security. For example, having a high heat index will drive demand for electricity, which leads to the consumption of fossil fuels. Competing for energy in different sectors, such as industry and tourism, means poorer areas will be left without electricity and running water as pumps will stop working. The urban poor will be most affected as they are faced with higher costs of electricity and water.

Rising global land and sea surface temperatures will also drive stronger storms and changes in sensitive ecosystems, such as coral reefs. Coastal communities, particularly traditional fishers, are faced with multiple effects of the heat. Unseasonal and stronger storms and more frequent storm surges will prevent locals from fishing, reducing their income while increasing expenses for repairing damages to their houses. When they can fish, reduced productivity means fewer catches and lower income.

That said, the most vulnerable groups are often poor and marginalised, and the country needs climate change adaptation plans that are responsive to different groups.

Climate adaptation involves changes in both individual practices and institutional approaches. Local communities need to rethink their livelihood strategies. Likewise, governments need to consider climate risks and impacts and integrate adaptation plans into development plans. Business-as-usual approaches will not work in the face of changing climate. While action plans might vary from sector to sector and community to community, the heart of climate adaptation lies in the real participation of all stakeholders, especially local communities.

The question is whether Thailand has a national adaptation plan. Indeed, Thailand has a National Adaptation Plan that focuses on six sectors: water resources management, agriculture and food security, tourism, public health, natural resources management and human settlement, and security. Yet, little has been done. There has been no planning, financing, or implementation of the adaptations.

The establishment of a new department for climate change under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is a good sign of climate commitment and efforts. Under the direction of the new department, all provinces across the country are developing plans for climate change for the first time. Yet, most of the plans involve emission reduction. Provincial climate plans primarily focus on greenhouse gas emission reduction efforts to fulfil the country’s net zero pledge.

Reducing emissions is highly important. The goal of climate mitigation is to prevent the planet from warming, ensuring better climate futures. But climate is already changing now, and the impacts are inevitable. So, what the country needs is “climate adaptation” solutions to reduce harmful impacts on humans.

Provincial climate adaptation plans need to guide local administrations and government agencies in addressing critical vulnerability issues of local communities. Socially vulnerable groups, such as the poor, disabled, elderly, women and children, will need additional support in building the adaptive capacity to deal with climate impacts. But the impacts of climate change are not restricted to these groups. Climate adaptation must begin with identifying climate-vulnerable groups and assessing why they are vulnerable.

The engagement of local communities and vulnerable groups is critical to developing locally-led adaptation options. Adaptation plans are context-specific. One size does not fit all. Local adaptation approaches need to involve the collaboration of multiple stakeholders. Ecosystem-based approaches must be integrated into adaptation plans. Building more structures and relying on engineering approaches alone will not protect vulnerable communities from increasingly complex climate impacts.

Pakamas Thinphanga is Project Lead of EU-funded initiative, ‘Strengthening urban climate governance in Thailand’, at Thailand Environment Institute (TEI), and the Adaptation Research Alliance supported project, ‘Empowerment of coastal communities for climate adaptation’, at Songkhla Community Foundation (SCF).

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