We had unseasonal winter rain in Bangkok this morning – it’s an unusual phenomenon, sufficiently unusual to prompt me into suspecting evidence of global climate change (which would probably be hasty – the climate is very complex and records are skimpily kept.
When I am called upon to talk about climate change here, I usually focus on the role of the Himalayan plateau, since the ice there feeds the great rivers of the Mekong, Salween, Hong, Irrawaddy and Chao Phraya (as well as those in the Indian sub-continent). Around 50 million people rely upon the Mekong for food, irrigation and income. Bear in mind that the predominant form of agriculture here is wet paddy rice farming which relies upon irrigation. So if, as current projections have it, all the ice in the Himalayas will melt in some 30-50 years, there will first be floods and then drought. Most of those 50 million people will be severely affected – to the point of possible starvation. Bangkok itself is scheduled to be under a metre of water by that point anyway, owing to persistent subsidence and rising sea levels. It will be cataclysmic.
Research suggests that global climate change is already starting to have an impact in the northeastern Isan region. In particular, the ‘Plain of Crying Nomads’ (that will be Thung Kula Ronghai, which covers Roi Et, Maha Sarakam, Surin, Sisaket and Yasothon) has been witnessing 45% reductions in rice yield, as well as additional droughts and floods. Many of the farmers involved have only low levels of education, of course and, having never heard of climate change, are seeking explanations from the world of the supernatural.
It is all too tempting to attribute any change in weather conditions to climate change without considering what other factors might be contributing – in the case of Isan, the deforestation of the region has intensified the cycle of drought and flooding, since the roots of the trees are no longer available to hold the water in the soil and the trees cannot hold up the flooding. However, the research (which I have not seen apart from this newspaper report) seems to have taken these effects into account and identified a quantitative change in conditions.
The intensification of weather conditions seems to be overwhelming the ability of the local people to cope, using the time-honoured customs that form the basis of folk wisdom. Even under previous conditions, many farmers have been crippled by systemic indebtedness owing to the seasonal nature of their economic activities and the inequities of the capitalist system in which they live. Rural poverty and suicide is a common enough phenomenon and will become worse, presumably, especially if the halt in the worsening conditions through policies of redistribution brought about by the 2001-6 governments are not properly sustained. It is possible that, if suitable steps are not taken now, that much of the Isan region will become uninhabitable within 30-50 years, depending on when the Himalayan glaciers finish melting and the Mekong dries up forever. Fifty million people rely upon the river in one way or another: it will be a human disaster of incredible proportions if the glaciers are permitted to disappear in the way that seems almost inevitable.
It has been hot these past couple of weeks in Bangkok – it has been hot across the country but it feels worse in the capital because of the traffic, the pollution and the sheer mass of people. We have had Songkran of course and one or two rain storms but the main rainy season is yet to start – 38 or 39 degrees is predicted for today and the year’s hottest day is supposed to be coming on the 27th, after which we might get some more cooling rain (which the farmers will appreciate).
I don’t know about other people but the hot weather tends to raise my temper as well and it is necessary to make an effort to be calm from time to time. It is all likely to get a lot worse what with the global climate change, the rising sea levels and the sinking Bangkok land.
The newly published report Bangkok: Assessment Report on Climate Change 2009 reveals that the levels of CO2 emissions here is equal to that of New York at 7.1 tonnes per person per year.* That exceeds London, which produces 5.9 tonnes. The principal problem is with the public transport system, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the ancient buses belching enormous plumes of black exhaust onto the streets. Some of the vehicles still being used are more than 50 years old. An efficient Metropolitan Administration would have replaced all of the fleet with modern and efficient equivalents – we do have some new and smart buses but not enough.
If the sea level rises by one metre relative to the level of the city (excessive water pumping is causing subsidence all over the place), then 72% of the city would be affected by 2025 (other estimates exist). I do expect that, unless we suddenly see some unexpected and dramatic action, by the time my mortgage is paid off, I will need to wade to the front door.
* This seems to be based on the amount of emissions divided by a population of six million – if the several million migrant workers in Bangkok were included, then presumably the figure would be rather lower.