Vulnerable groups are making much progress in adapting to climate change, but where we are in Panama through to Durban?

Wanun Permpibul on flooding in Thailand

Photo 1 - Photo credit: Forests and Farmers Foundation, 2011

Photos 2-4 - Photo credit: HBS Southeast Regional Office, 2011

Wanun Permpibul
Head, Energy and Climate Change Programme
Renewable Energy Institute of Thailand Foundation
Thailand

Climate change is already a threat.  Extreme and unprecedented climatic events are affecting poor communities already and they have little capacity to adapt.  They have already been affected by economic and social injustice as well as other difficulties and climate change is adding another burden to their existing problems.  Adaptive capacity needs to be strengthened while longterm adaptation is necessary and must be enhanced.

A few months before the Panama Climate Talks, provinces in the lower Northern Region of Thailand, particularly Pitsanulok Province, were hit severely by floods.  Paddy fields, orchards, houses were flooded and destroyed.  People died and went missing.  Flood levels even rose up to their roofs.  Most of the houses were submerged.  Boats were floating up to the first floor of the house while residents had to stay on the second floor.  Some had to leave their houses temporarily.  Some villagers were bitten by poisonous snakes and scorpions, others were faced with infections on their feet, and other disease.  Not only are their houses and paddy fields inundated, but other resources that could be sources of income are also damaged.

As a matter of fact, villages here are flooded every year during the wet season, but the current floods are extraordinary in the sense that rainfall came two months earlier this year in a very heavy and lasting pattern before the rice could be harvested.  This is the second time for Bang Rakam Subdistrict that the rains have come earlier, the last time was in 2000 and in 1995 for the Jom Thong Subdistrict.  During the floods, villagers could not harvest, and thus were unable to earn any income.  Communities were not warned and informed well in advance enough of the floods and were not able to prepare for it.  Floods have lasted for longer periods of time.  Previously, they lasted for two months, but now it has been almost three months.  The government was trying to solve the floods problem using a traditional top down approach: they flushed out the water from the areas, but then found this created a flooding problem in another area.  

Rather than waiting for humanitarian aid and the government’s help, communities implemented their own responses to the floods and have been adjusting themselves to the climatic changes.  These are their homes for generations and they do not want to leave.  Some couldn’t afford to move elsewhere.  Their responses include changing the crop calendar by starting to grow rice months earlier than usual.  They will have to observe natural signs using their local knowledge to predict the climate pattern each year in order to prevent massive loss to crops.  Some have initiated a rice bank to store traditional rice varieties that are pest and flood tolerant with longer stalks that will not be damaged by floods.  Some have tried to grow different rice varieties in higher land or even in orchard fields.  Some have prepared for food insecurity by recovering endangered food species that are floods resistant.  Also, the pattern of housing architecture has been changed.  Many villagers have lifted their houses higher from the ground to free the flow of water.  Some even have boats to ease their travelling.  They also have learned to store some food and drinking water, and other necessities.

Additionally, they have built their own reservoirs to store water for farm use and nurturing some fish species.  They have looked for alternatives for income generation like catching fish and snakes, during floods.  Some have initiated a communication system to ease information flow during the floods among those located up-, middle- and down-stream river.  The system could also help mobilize immediate needs and supports among each other.  This should be further developed to enhance preparedness and prevent massive losses longterm.  Apart from the immediate responses, communities have been engaged in a planning process for longterm adaptation to future impacts of climatic change.  Initially, they came up with an idea of constructing an improved flood protection, but it would require significant funds and take lots of time.  Also, more research on flood tolerant species is needed.  All these elements for longterm adaptation require funds and external supports.

The Panama Talks are, therefore, important.  The delay in taking ambitious reduction targets would mean more severe and frequent extreme climatic events and poor communities will be hit the most.  As Pitsanulok, Thailand and others are faced now with the impacts, longterm adaptation is really needed.  We need to massively scale-up support for adaptation actions to cover full implementation of National Adaptation Action Strategies and Plans, from immediate to longterm actions, that will deliver regular flows of financial and other support for adaptation planning, implementation and monitoring. These should be in the form of predictable periodic grant installments and help is needed to facilitate, enable and support generation, gathering and dissemination of data, knowledge and experiences, including traditional knowledge on adaptation planning and practices.  Building upon what was agreed in Cancun – the Cancun Adaptation Framework – the creation of an Adaptation Committee under the UNFCCC will have to provide an oversight of streams of adaptation work, where the Committee should comprise members of civil society and experts in each necessary field.  This will have to be achieved in Panama so that it can be finalized in Durban in December.  

Communities are faced with hardship and are simply attempting to survive.  They might or might not know that the disasters and unpredictable patterns of rainfalls are as a result of climate change or anthropogenic emissions, but changes are happening and affecting their livelihoods and most of all, they need to live with these.   Those in Panama are well equipped with all the science, they need to make more progress.  Community voices must be heard.