6 June 2024

Being the people who will suffer the worst impacts of climate change, women and youths from Thai communities on the frontline of the crisis are demanding that the government pay greater attention to the environment.

On the eve of the 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (COP28), residents of at-risk communities have exposed what they claim are serious gaps in Thailand’s climate policy.

Many local communities are being almost completely overlooked by Thailand’s climate strategy, they say.

COP28 will be held in Dubai from November 30 to December 12.

 Uncertain future in Chana

Born into a fishing family from a small coastal community of Songkhla’s Chana district in the South of Thailand, 21-year-old Khairiya Rahmanyah says local residents lack neither food nor income thanks to the fertile land and bountiful sea.

Farming and fishing have offered stable livelihoods here for decades.

However, Khairiyah and her peers are the first generation to see a bleak future ahead of them in the community.

She said the intensifying effects of climate change coupled with the controversial development of an industrial park in the area are threatening their lifeline and uprooting their traditional livelihoods.

“We can feel the impacts of climate change here in our community. Over the past few years, the sea is getting stormier, making it tougher and more dangerous for fishermen to go out in their traditional small boats,” she said.

“It is also getting much hotter and the land is becoming more arid, which is affecting our crops and reducing harvests.”

But despite clear evidence that people in Chana district are suffering badly from the effects of climate change, they have received no help from the authorities, Khairiyah said. There have been no official efforts to strengthen the community’s capacity to adapt to the changing environment or deal with climate disasters.

Instead, she said, the government is considering plans for the Chana Industrial Park project, including a new deepwater seaport, biomass power plants and industrial facilities.

“Though this project is currently suspended, if the government does decide to go ahead with it, not only will a large part of our community be evicted, but the local environment and ecosystems will be contaminated. The industrial pollution will eventually destroy the natural resources that locals depend upon,” Khairiyah said.

“It is not just our community that will be doomed if this ‘very dirty’ development materializes. It will also jeopardize global climate actions and worsen climate change. The new biomass power plants and factories will release even more greenhouse gases.”

 Killing Mekong communities

On the other side of the country, people living along the Mekong River in the Northeast are facing the same problems as communities in Chana district. The northeasterners are also having to deal with a consistent decline of natural resources and environmental degradation due to impacts from climate change, the development of hydropower projects on the Mekong, and a lack of government support.

“The impacts of climate change on the environment and Mekong ecosystems are very obvious. The weather is becoming hotter and drier. The water in the river is also getting warmer, causing many kinds of fish to migrate to deeper parts of the river, and triggering more frequent and widespread blooms of algae. This is lowering the quality of the water,” said Ormbun Thipsuna, from the Association of Northeast Thailand Community Network in 7 Provinces.

However, the climate impacts are small compared to the degradation and alteration of the entire river caused by hydropower development on the Mekong, she said. The hydropower dams have already done irreversible damage to the natural resources and biodiversity that thousands of communities along the Mekong rely on, she added.

Hence, many local people now find themselves suffering serious financial insecurity as they can no longer rely on the fish and other natural resources of the river. This insecurity is also making them more vulnerable to various socioeconomic problems, including debt.

Despite all these problems, the Thai government has shown full support for Mekong hydropower projects. It has already signed up to buy power from these harmful projects, she said, with authorities claiming that the dams will boost efforts to mitigate climate change impacts on Thailand. The dams are seen as a source of clean, renewable energy that helps the country reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

“The government claims that hydropower development on the Mekong is ‘green’ and good for the climate, but research and observations by academics and local communities show that this is far from the truth,” she said.

She explained that even though hydropower dams produce electricity without emitting greenhouse gas, the construction and operation of big hydropower dams on the Mekong is causing significant loss of forests and wetlands. Large areas of these essential ecosystems are either getting submerged under reservoirs or degenerating due to adverse impacts from dam operations.

 Inclusive policies necessary

Ormbun said conflicts between local communities and authorities over climate policies are becoming far more frequent. They stem from officials’ negligence and failure to consider local people’s needs and interests when these policies are devised, she added.

“State agencies rarely include local communities when devising policies that may affect their lives and livelihoods. They also do not take public interest into consideration. As such, we can see that most of Thailand’s climate policies are pouring benefits on a few ultra-rich corporations, while the locals are being almost completely sidelined and ignored,” she said.

There is an urgent need to launch campaigns promoting climate adaptation and resilience, she said, as this would prepare local communities to withstand the growing climate crisis. But instead, authorities are largely ignoring the fact that the population needs to be prepared.

“To ensure sufficient mitigation and properly protect people from climate risks, the government needs to prioritize the needs and interests of local communities. They need to ensure proper public participation in every climate policy that is drafted and encourage local communities to take a lead on natural resource management. They should also develop local initiatives to strengthen local people’s capacity to adapt and overcome challenges from climate change.”

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk