Can the solutions for climate change help us fix poverty too?
Ban Khun Samut Chin, Thailand – On the surface Ban Khun Samut Chin is an idyllic Thai fishing village. Yet looking towards the horizon confirms that something is seriously awry. Speared into the ocean, a line of equally spaced telegraph poles disappears into the distance. The road that once ran parallel to the poles connecting houses, farms and rural markets, is nowhere to be seen. All that is visible is a vast ocean.
The very thing that makes Samut Chin idyllic – the crystal blue sea – is also destroying it. The sea is doing what it has always done: In its usual rhythmic motion, it comes and goes, pushing and pulling, obeying the dictates of the sun and the moon. What is unusual is that it is doing it one kilometre farther inland than before.
Climate scientists say that as global warming heats up the planet, polar ice caps and glaciers melt and seawaters expand, causing oceans to rise, and in effect, disturbing the Earth’s delicate balance.
Thailand’s majestic coastline, only 50km from its overpopulated and chaotic capital, Bangkok, is now under the sea. Samut Chin village radiates a remoteness that seems at odds with its proximity to the urban sprawl. To get there involves driving along concrete highways and an elegant span of bridges until the roads get progressively smaller and turn into rural lanes. Then the road abruptly ends among the mangroves and the boat journey begins. The boatman guns the longboat at breakneck speed, snaking and cutting his way through black water and arching tree roots, eventually arriving at a wooden jetty on stilts. The last part of the journey is on foot, following the weaving path to the centre of the village.
Bamboo and concrete seawalls
The steady destruction of Samut Chin – thought to be a result of the deforestation of mangroves, the damming of rivers upstream and now, rising sea levels – has taken a high toll on this once thriving fishing community. The villagers have experienced psychological, physical and financial hardships. Many have had to move their homes up to eight times, going farther inland and away from the advancing sea. Scores of families have been forced to leave the area altogether. Others are too poor to move and have nowhere else to go.
Village chief Samorn Khengsamut, a middle-aged woman with the energy and determination of someone much younger, says the whole community is anxious. “Ban Khun Samut Chin has faced rising seas and coastal erosion for over 30 years. If this continues and we need to move yet again, we worry there won’t be enough solid land left to live on.” Samorn says that they don’t have the resources to build proper defences against the erosion. “We have built temporary makeshift seawalls from bamboo and concrete. These have slowed down the damage a little but they’re not strong enough to prevent it altogether.”
Villagers who remain possess title deeds to their lands, which now lie completely under the ocean. “The deeds are worthless and now we live on land we don’t own,” says Samorn, rifling through a table covered in council plans and maps. All of the buildings in the village have been submerged under water. The village has moved to higher ground a kilometre away.
All that remains
The advancing water has been inundating buildings in its path. All that remains of the local school is the top of a concrete block barely visible in the breaking waves. From their new pier, one of the villagers pointed out the school’s previous site which now lies in the middle of the ocean.
The only building that hasn’t been claimed by the sea and relocated is Samut Trawat temple. The Buddhist edifice forlornly sits about a kilometre away from the new Samut Chin village jutting out from the sea. It is connected to the eroded mainland by a long concrete footbridge and is now, in effect, an islet.
Once the spiritual and social heart of Samut Chin, the temple’s survival seems symbolic of the monks’ faith in their community. They are determined not to give in to the invading sea. Through their own efforts, they have fortified the small island temple by building breakwaters out of concrete and bamboo and planting mangrove saplings.
Monks at Samut Trawat temple say the local people have been given little information about what is happening to their environment. During the monsoon season, foul weather lashes the Gulf of Thailand’s coastline, battering and flooding the temple. The few remaining resident monks have raised the temple floor by nearly two metres so they can continue to pray, away from the incoming deluge.
Nowhere to go
Far away from Samut Chin in the lofty corridors of high science, great debate and much scepticism abound between scientists about whether global warming truly exists at all. While most scientific research has focused on the rise in water levels, some scientists claim sea levels are actually falling. A new study using Europe’s Space Agency’s ERS-2 satellite says that over the past 10 years, the sea level in the Arctic Ocean has been falling at an average rate of about 2mm a year. However, the study has not been peer-reviewed.
Stefan Rahmstorf, a physicist and oceanographer, has a different view: “Sea-level rise is going to be a very serious problem for the future, made worse by every tonne of CO2 that we emit,” he writes. And it is not going to stop in the year 2100 either, he adds. By 2300, for unmitigated emissions, IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, projects water levels will rise between one metre and up to more than three metres.
Meanwhile, residents of villages like Samut Chin are at the front line of an invading ocean. They don’t have the luxury to engage in the debate about climate change because they are too busy fighting the consequences of it. As the scientific world works towards finding an agreement, poorer countries, whom the IPCC suggests will suffer significantly from climate change, are fighting to have their voices heard. They argue that because the industrialised world has been historically the most responsible for global warming, they should help countries further down the economic ladder to manage the consequences of climate change , a sentiment echoed by villagers in Samut Chin (watch our documentary: Another Giant Leap).
This month, the governments of 190 nations are meeting in Paris in an effort to reach a new agreement on climate change. Their goal is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to counter what they perceive is the danger of climate change. Current commitments to limiting greenhouse emissions end in 2020. Scientists in the “believers” camp say that climate change is the core reason for the world’s current extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels. They believe it is urgent to act now and they have warned that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, we will soon pass the point when global warming is irreversible and the effects will be catastrophic.
Meanwhile, other vulnerable coastline communities, like Samut Chin, worry more about how many centimetres the ocean will rise the next day. They contemplate the destructive effect it will have on them, and, ultimately, how they will survive. “It’s very frightening and stressful,” says village chief Samorn.
With nowhere else to go, she and the other villagers are hoping desperately for immediate solutions to help turn the tide.