By Michael Shater
Chiang Mai, Thailand, June 3, 2017
The rivers have escaped their banks. They have destroyed millions of rai of paddies and fields newly prepared for planting.
They run dark red with upstream farmers’ topsoil. They have destroyed billions of baht of public investment in communication, transportation and electrification infrastructure. They have destroyed factories, merchandise, families’ homes, medical equipment and supplies, bank offices, tambon and amphoe records. They have destroyed millions of children’s desks, chairs, textbooks and computers. As they recede, they leave behind a blanket of toxic mud contaminated with millions of tonnes of human and animal excrement, industrial wastes, pesticides, diesel fuel and hydraulic fluid, and the effluent of every upstream garbage dump and landfill.
It is May, the month of first showers of the coming rainy season. May showers are supposed to soften the hot season-hardened earth for planting. No more. Today, May downpours tear erosion channels in the earth.
This is climate change and it is forever. We have talked about it for years – and done nothing to prepare. Now it is here and we are paying for our tomorrow-is-another-day attitude.We cannot stop the torrential rains, powerful storms, droughts, torrid temperatures, spreading ranges of disease bearing mosquitoes, rising sea levels, disappearing beaches and falling crop productivity.
All we can do is to build defences.
The floods and terrible toll that they extracted over the past few months tell us two things: (1) we are defenceless now and (2) we have a huge task in front of us to harden Thailand for what is to come.
On April 24, the governor of Bangkok apologised to city residents for the recent flooding. In almost the same breath, he noted that the city can drain only 60 millimetres of rain per hour – and had faced more than 100mm per hour during the night. This is without flood waters.
Bangkok in the rain embodies the challenge that climate change poses for Thailand – and our failure to confront it. Here we have the governor apologising for minor flooding due to heavy rain. The cost in lost business is large – but compared to what?
Scientists are projecting rapidly rising sea levels in the next 50 years. In Bangkok, port facilities, large areas of the city, a subway, transportation infrastructure and water purification plants will flood.
So where is the aggressive action to protect the irreplaceable investment in Greater Bangkok? Where is the discussion of how the potential flooding of Bangkok may affect, for example, the terminus of the new rail deal with China? Where is consideration of climate change in planning for the great Eastern Corridor development push? Are the huge new port facilities, for example, planned to cope with a rise in sea level of 3 to 6 metres?
Have you heard? I haven’t – and I worry about climate change for a living.
It is easy to dismiss all this as fear-mongering. It is not. It is a prosaic call for buying insurance to ensure that when the inevitable happens, the costs are contained.
When I taught at university, my students often asked, “Who needs expensive health insurance? Health insurance is for old people.” Until you are hit by a drunk driver.
Drunk drivers are inevitable. Drunk drivers are predictable. Only a fool would not insure himself against getting hit by a drunk driver.
Climate change is inevitable, too. Its consequences are predictable. So where is the insurance?
Too costly, you say? Slows our drive to become a 4.0 country?
Thailand is paying – wasting – billions of baht annually repairing damage caused by climate change. How big do you think the bill for the past three months of flood damage will be in terms of destroyed national infrastructure, business assets, private property, lost business, lost productivity, simple clean-up? And how much would it have cost to build a national flood control system – even without discounting for the economic stimulus that the public spending would have had in our stagnant economy?
Not interested in agriculture? Out of step with the new, digital Thailand? In the North where I live, the Internet goes out every time it rains. If that happens now, what will be the cost of replacing the government’s new every-village-in-Thailand-will-be-on-fibre after every flood? Does the budget for the new system include waterproofing insurance against climate change? Or are we content to continue to pay and pay and pay to clean up after the inevitable, no matter what the cost to everything else we care about.
And that is the problem. A baht spent on climate change insurance pays for itself every time it rains. Every baht spent on clean up after a flood that good insurance could have prevented is money diverted from another purpose – higher education, elder care, high speed rail.
All insurance premiums seem onerous when the sun is shining; you pay when the sun is shining so that when the storm strikes, you do not waste billions cleaning up the mess.
This is a government that prides itself in its ability to take decisive action. Now is the time for decisive action. Now is the time to assess Thailand’s vulnerabilities to climate change, the vulnerability of major capital projects that are on the drawing board and of plans for the future.
Michael Shafer is director of the Warm Heart Foundation, based in A Phrao, Chiang Mai.