By Corinne Kisner, July 2008
Throughout the world, countries are experiencing a need to protect their populations and productive capacities in the face of new climate challenges. At the same time, each country has the responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and its contribution to a global problem. These two goals require significant adaptation and mitigation efforts as countries adapt to a new lifestyle. Thailand has begun implementing interesting strategies to adapt to climate change, to mitigate some of the effects that are already felt across sectors, and to protect farmland, coasts and cities. The lessons learned will prove useful to Thailand as it faces future climate challenges, and can be referenced by other Southeast Asian countries with similar situations.
Thailand’s Climate Situation
Thailand is the home to 65 million people, the majority of whom live in rural, agricultural areas. The country is the world’s largest exporter of rice, and is often called “the rice bowl of Asia.” Agriculture employs 49% of the population and contributes 10% of GDP. Tourism and fisheries abound on Thailand’s 3,200 kilometers of coastline and play important roles in the economy, providing 6% of GDP and a livelihood to 10% of the population. The capital city, Bangkok, is home to 15% of the country’s population and serves as the economic, political and social center not only for Thailand but for the greater Mekong region, giving it the status of a global city. Climate change threatens all three important sectors of Thailand’s economy: agriculture, tourism, and trade.
Today, Thailand produces only 0.8% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, and has a lower per capita emission rate than the global average (3.25 metric tons in 2002, compared with 3.97 per capita worldwide). However, Thailand’s total CO2 emissions doubled between 1991 and 2002 and the government recognized its contribution to global warming. In April 2007, Bangkok hosted an International Panel on Climate Change summit and in the following year hosted UN climate change talks. The following month, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration published the 2007 Action Plan on Global Warming Mitigation, calling for reductions in Bangkok’s greenhouse gas emissions by 15% below currently projected 2012 levels.
The effects of climate change, including higher surface temperatures, floods, droughts, severe storms and sea level rise, put Thailand’s rice crops at risk and threaten to submerge Bangkok within 20 years. The damage to agriculture, coastal tourism, and the capital city as consequences of climate change will have enormous economic, cultural and environmental impacts: one degree of warming will destroy the rice crops that are central to the economy, and a few centimeters of sea level rise will submerge the capital city and devastate coastal tourism. Thailand’s mitigation and adaptation efforts include a slow shift to organic agriculture, a tsunami warning system along the Andaman Sea, the construction of a flood prevention wall around Bangkok, and an Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and energy use.
Rice Agriculture and Methane Emissions
Globally, agriculture plays an interesting environmental role: it is both a victim of, and contributor to climate change. At the same time that agriculture is forced to adapt to challenges involving new soil conditions, more erratic weather patterns, and changing water availability scenarios, there is pressure to find ways to mitigate agriculture’s extensive contribution to greenhouse warming. Thailand’s agricultural sector is no exception.
photo by Corinne Kisner
Agriculture, and especially rice production, is an essential component of Thailand’s economy and culture. The verb “to eat” in Thai translates literally as “to eat rice” and it is rare that a meal doesn’t include this staple grain. A common greeting is “gin kow reu yung” which translates as “have you eaten rice yet,” and it is customary to invite someone who has not yet eaten to share a meal. In 2007, Thailand produced 28 million tons of rice, compared with 636 million tons worldwide. That year, Thailand exported 9 million tons of rice, more than any other country. (Southeast Asia collectively produces 150 million tons of rice a year, 95% of which is consumed in the region; agricultural challenges facing Thailand, and the solutions for coping, often apply to its neighbors.) Historically, Thai farmers grew tens of thousands of varieties, although genetic modifications have reduced that number drastically. Rice biodiversity boosts soil fertility, contributes to thriving ecosystems, and has cultural significance. Throughout the year, there are dozens of ceremonies using different varieties of rice, including black, yellow, red, white and sticky rice. Following the traditional recipe for a single dish can require up to thirty rice varieties. Rice production also determines food security for many countries, as it is the only major grain grown exclusively for food and provides over one fifth of the calories consumed worldwide. The 2008 food crisis demonstrated the effects of rising rice prices on impoverished nations, worrying politicians and farmers alike. Climate change has and will continue to harm rice yields: a study by Okayama University in Japan found that grain yield declines when the average daily temperature exceeds 84° Fahrenheit (29° Celsius), and grain quality continues to decline linearly as temperatures rise. Rice, an essential crop in Thailand, is vulnerable to climate change but also has complex environmental impacts with no easy solutions.
Rice accounts for 16% of global nitrogen fertilizer use, 13% of phosphate fertilizer use, and 13% of potassium fertilizer use (chemical fertilizer requirements per unit of output for rice are on par with those for maize, but are less than those for wheat and substantially more than those for soybeans). In the 2007/2008 season, rice crops in Thailand alone required 262,000 tons of nitrogen fertilizer. Chemical fertilizers contribute to greenhouse gasemissions, decrease soil fertility, have harmful health effects, and drive many farmers into vicious debt cycles. However, organic production, which generally mitigates these factors, is no panacea in the case of rice production due to considerable methane emissions from flooded rice paddies.
photo by Corinne Kisner
Methane, like carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Although carbon dioxide emissions still pose a greater problem given its long atmospheric lifetime, global methane levels have climbed to 16% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Even more problematic is methane’s potency: by weight, methane can trap 21 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
In 2005, Thailand's methane emissions equalled 91.6 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent , 51% of which were due to rice cultivation -- a statistic that is drawing international attention to the climate effects of rice paddies. Unlike other crops, where the environmental focus is on reducing carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions from deforestation and chemical fertilizers, rice production’s greatest impact is through methane. In this case, organic fertilizers may not help in the way they can with corn and wheat, because methane is emitted through the fermentation of organic matter in flooded paddies. Organic fertilizer alone doesn’t provide the climate solution for rice (although it greatly improves farmer health and soil fertility), but farmers have adapted other strategies for mitigating rice agriculture’s climate effects.
Many large rice mills burn rice husks for power rather than oil or coal, and some are able to sell electricity back to the government, such as the plant in Roi-Et province, a pilot project with a capacity of 9.8 MW. Burning rice husks diverts the methane that would be produced by leaving rice husks to decompose in the fields and provides a renewable source of energy with no net carbon dioxide emissions. Another mitigation strategy is to occasionally drain rice paddies. This reduces methane emissions by eliminating the bacteria that thrive in the oxygen-free setting and produce methane by decomposing manure or other organic matter. A study by Thailand’s Graduate School of Energy and Environment examined the balance between methane and nitrous oxide emissions and rice yields. The study found that a three day mid-season drainage during the rice flowering period reduced emissions with a minimal yield reduction. This was suggested as a compromise between the need to mitigate climate change and current socio-economic realities.
These mitigation strategies, while strong in theory, have yet to be implemented on a large scale. As rising temperatures and irregular weather patterns harm rice yields, and as growing populations threaten food security, Thai farmers and the Thai government will be forced to further address rice production’s contributions to global climate change.
Erratic Weather: Drought, Flood, and Artificial Rain
During the past decade, weather patterns in Thailand have fluctuated from severe droughts to severe floods, leaving residential and agricultural areas reeling. Between 1990 and 1993, rainfall was below normal levels, causing water shortages in 1993. Intense rainfalls in 1994 and 1995 resulted in the worst floods in Thailand’s recent history. In 2005, 11 million people in 71 provinces were affected by water shortages. Now, in 2008, the population suffers from severe drought again, with over ten million people in the rural agricultural region affected. According to Thailand’s Disaster Prevention and Mitigation department, 55 of the country’s 76 provinces have suffered, damaging over 150,000 rai (60,000 acres) of farmland, primarily rice paddies. The drought has contributed to concerns of a global food crisis and soaring grain prices.
photo by Corinne Kisner
In order to alleviate his country’s suffering due to drought, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej needed a method to increase rainfall. First explored in 1955, the Royal Rainmaking project now employs planes that seed clouds with salt in order to unlock the moisture within, creating ‘royal rain.’ As his country faced severe droughts in 2002, King Bhumibol Adulyadej sought a patent for his “cloud-firing” technique to make artificial rain. The process involves firing silver iodide particles into clouds so that water vapor will gather around the particles and fall as rain. The King’s technique uses two aircraft at different altitudes to seed warm and cold clouds, allowing a more precise rainfall location. China, Indonesia, and South Africa are already using the technology, and with Thailand’s help, Tanzania hopes to begin making its own rain. The technology has been in use for fifty years now, but skeptics continue to question the chemicals’ effect on soil quality and biodiversity. The artificial rain is expensive and no substitute for natural rain, and only treats the symptoms of climate change rather than the causes. However, it can be instrumental in saving crops that suffer during extreme drought.
The 2004 Tsunami: Devastation, Restoration, and Lessons Learned
On December 26, 2004, a magnitude 9.3 earthquake triggered the Indian Ocean tsunami, one of the most devastating natural disasters ever recorded. While the actual tidal wave was caused by uncontrollable natural forces, many scientists agree that the disaster’s effects were exacerbated by poor environmental management. Anthropogenic climate change causes coastal erosion, mangrove loss and coral reef destruction; in the absence of these natural protective barriers, the giant wave carried its energy all the way to shore, killing over 250,000 people and causing billions of dollars of damage. In areas where natural buffer zones remained, such as the Phang Nga province, inland territories were protected by large mangrove forests that dulled the wave’s impact and dissipated its energy.
In the future, sea level rise, a proven effect of climate change according to IPCC reports, may contribute to even greater damage from tsunami waves. Furthermore, climate change threatens fresh water resources, which are essential in post-tsunami relief efforts. A 2006 mitigation report conducted by the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute recommended that Thailand promote public awareness of tsunami risks, build warning systems and functional networks of escape routes, and construct physical protection barriers. Progress along these lines has already begun: Thailand, with the help of UNESCO, constructed 76 tsunami warning towers in the six provinces along the Andaman Sea coast. The United States provided two satellite-linked deep-sea buoys located 1000 km offshore to detect the sudden increases in pressure indicative of tsunamis, thereby giving a one hour warning to at-risk countries. In addition to these preparedness measures, Thailand has undertaken various coastal ecosystem restoration projects to rehabilitate coral reefs and mangrove forests after the tsunami. Economically, efforts to rebuild have been efficient, although the devastation on these islands was extensive, with almost three-quarters of buildings on Ko Phi Phi destroyed. Just a few years after the disaster, tourism once again abounds. New buildings are being constructed according to higher safety standards and signposts on tourist islands such as Ko Phi Phi and Phuket display multi-lingual explanation of flood risks and evacuation plans.
Bangkok at Risk
Reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change state that “increases in sea level are consistent with warming. Global average sea level rose at an average rate of 1.8 mm per year over 1961 to 2003 and at an average rate of about 3.1 mm per year from 1993 to 2003.” The consequences of sea level rise are abundant: many millions of people will be subjected to floods, coastal ecosystems will be destroyed, and sea level rise will exacerbate freshwater constraints due to salinization of estuaries and groundwater supplies. Southeast Asia is not exempt from these dangers. The IPCC warns that “the megadeltas of Asia are vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise that could increase the frequency and level of inundation…due to storm surges and floods from river drainage putting communities, biodiversity and infrastructure at risk of being damaged. This impact could be more pronounced in megacities located in megadeltas where natural ground subsidence is enhanced by human activities, such as in Bangkok.”
Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city and home to over 10 million people, has been sinking 10 centimeters annually. The land subsidence, coupled with rising sea levels due to climate change, puts the city at risk of disappearing into the sea within 15 or 20 years, according to Smith Dharmasaroja, chair of the Thai government's Committee of National Disaster Warning Administration. To counter this threat, disaster prevention experts are now advocating the construction of a 100 billion baht (3 billion USD) flood prevention wall to protect Bangkok. Initial designs call for a wall 80 kilometers long, and three meters higher than the moderate sea level, to be built 300 meters offshore to allow mangrove forests to serve as a natural barrier against coastal erosion. The wall’s construction would demonstrate Thailand’s need to adapt to environmental changes that threaten its population and economy.
A Call for Action
In May 2007, Bangkok’s Governor Apirak Kosayodhin announced that the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) would sign the Bangkok Declaration on Mitigation of Climate Change with 23 public and private organizations. The government recognized Thailand’s, and especially the capital city’s, contribution to global warming and “set a target of delivering 8 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2011 and a target of 35 percent in 2020.”
Bangkok’s per capita CO2 emissions, at 7.1 tons per capita, are higher than those of other major cities, such as London and Tokyo (5.9 and 5.7 tons, respectively). 84% of Bangkok’s greenhouse gas emissions are from energy use and transportation; 3% are from methane emissions from landfills and wastewater. Since the signing of the Bangkok Declaration, the city has enjoyed various campaigns promoting compact fluorescent bulbs, garbage reduction, the use of cloth bags instead of plastic, and planting trees on the Queen’s birthday.
The Declaration aimed to reduce the city’s contribution to climate change through five measures: “reduce energy and natural resources consumption, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote lifestyles that uphold the sufficiency economy, promote activities that help absorb greenhouse gases, and build public awareness of global warming.” In the next five years, the BMA’s 2007 Action Plan on Global Warming Mitigation hopes to reduce Bangkok’s greenhouse gas emissions by 15% below currently projected 2012 levels. In order to reduce emissions from vehicle traffic, Bangkok is encouraging commuters to leave their cars at home by improving its mass transit system, constructing bike lanes and pedestrian walkways, and implementing environmental fee surcharges on gasoline. Other recommendations in the Action Plan will promote efficient use of electrical appliances and air-conditioners, seek to reduce methane emissions through advanced waste management and campaigns for reuse and recycling, and also plant trees in public parks to serve as CO2 sinks. It is too early to tell whether these steps will achieve substantial greenhouse gas reductions, but within a few years, scientists and politicians will be able to measure the success of Bangkok’s Action Plan.
Thailand’s future in the face of climate change remains uncertain. Like many countries, it contributes to global warming through energy use and agriculture. Like many other countries, it feels the environmental, social, and economic impacts of floods, droughts, and severe storms. Thailand’s mitigation and adaptation efforts, such as the Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the flood wall to protect Bangkok, and the King’s technology to create artificial rain, could be replicated by nations with similar climate scenarios. Likewise, areas with high risk of tsunamis or other natural disasters can learn from Thailand’s devastation and act now to prevent extreme damage from storms. Thailand is exceptionally vulnerable to small changes in climate: slightly warmer surface temperatures will destroy the rice crops that feed the population and bolster the economy, and a few centimeters of sea level rise will submerge the capital city and devastate coastal tourism. Changes to agricultural techniques and disaster prevention strategies will allow the country to maintain its economy and culture, and efforts by the entire world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will help Thailand survive in a changing climate.
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