Climate Change and Thailand: Impact and Response

Article excerpt

In 2010 Thailand faced its worst drought in 20 years resulting in the water level of the Mekong River falling to its lowest level in 50 years. "According to villagers who live along the river in Thailand ... the Mekong [was] really drying. At some point, people seem[ed] to be able to even walk across the river, which has never happened before", said Srisuwan Kuankajorn, co-director of the Thai environmental non-governmental organization (NGO), Terra. (1) According to Thailand's Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, the drought negatively affected at least 7.6 million people in 59 of the country's 76 provinces. According to Kuankajorn, Thais who lived in the north, particularly Chiang Rai, were "in big trouble" because they could not fish, a vital source of income and protein. Jeremy Bird, head of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), added, "It is really a question of very low water levels for communities, drinking supplies for agriculture, and for livestock." (2)

The drought also heightened tensions over water resource management within the region. A coalition of regional NGOs, including Thai NGOs, charged that Chinese dam construction along the upper levels of the Mekong River were causing unnatural water level fluctuations. The Chinese government and international water and some environmental experts, however, believe that climate change was the major factor affecting the amount of rainfall in the Mekong basin. According to Ian Campbell, a senior environmentalist at the MRC, "The wet season started late and ended early last year. This is why rivers such as the Mekong are experiencing low water levels." (3)

As evidenced by the recent drought, climate change is an important issue for Thailand in both the medium and long term. Floods, droughts and tropical storms--which cause numerous natural disasters annually--will only multiply in frequency and intensity. Major climate-induced changes could have severe negative impacts on Thai food production, particularly rice. These adverse impacts, such as droughts and floods, have political consequences too, as they place a greater burden on the government to help those afflicted and to distribute resources evenly. Climate change will most likely also create friction between Thailand and its neighbours over a number of issues such as water management, refugee settlement and energy policy.

Using a scenario-building exercise, three recent studies have predicted the political and social impacts of climate change upon the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia over the next several decades. (4) While numerous studies have forecast the physical impacts of climate change in Thailand, and some have surveyed Thailand's energy sector, none have analysed how these impacts will affect the Thai state and society or have projected whether the country has the capacity to respond to climate change. This paper seeks to address this gap in the literature and, by projecting the negative consequences of climate change, attempts to contribute to thinking about how these consequences can be addressed.

To assess the impact of climate change on Thailand, and how governments will respond to it, this paper is divided into three sections. Summarizing other studies, the first section describes the likely physical impacts of climate change in Thailand. The second section forecasts how these impacts will affect the Thai state and society, focusing on issues such as social change, migration and relations with its neighbours. The third section discusses Thailand's current climate change policies, assesses its current capacity to address climate change and predicts how future political and economic changes will affect the country's capacity. It argues that Thailand's current political economy, characterized by competitive clientilism, narrow coalitions of elite politicians, and fragmented politics, hinders its capacity to address climate change and, that while ongoing political changes will improve that capacity to some extent, it will still be limited in the coming decades. …