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Thai villages sink as erosion, climate change bite

world Updated: Dec 07, 2009 09:31 IST
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Surrounded by water, a Buddhist temple is one of the last remnants of a Thai village that has vanished beneath the sea -- a scene being repeated across Asia and the world.

Around 60 families have already been forced away from the once idyllic fishing community of Khun Samutchine, as the sea that local people rely on for their livelihood advances inland by more than 20 metres (yards) a year.

"I live on somebody else's land, I can't escape the village because I'm too poor," says Noo Wisuksin, 71, as she points to the spot in the water where her home used to be decades ago.

She is one of 25 million people under threat in Thailand's vast Chao Phraya river delta, which is sinking because of river damming and the clearing of mangrove forests, as climate change pushes up sea levels.

In the past 30 years the sea in Khun Samutchine has swallowed more than one kilometre (half a mile) of land and Noo has moved her house back eight times since to escape the rising tides.

Nearby sits the almost-deserted Khun Samut temple, marooned at sea and accessible only by a concrete walkway. A line of electricity pylons pokes out of the water, stretching out to nowhere.

Upstream damming along the river basins that feed the Gulf of Thailand have prevented sediment from building up, upsetting the balance with the erosive force of the sea.

The clearing of slow-growing mangrove forests to set up shrimp and salt farms have hastened the destruction.

Further up the coast, the village of Kok Karm is managing to turn the tide, for now, using cheap traditional materials.

Resident Vorapol Dounglomchan came up with a scheme using bamboo poles to create barriers that trap sediment from the seawater and stop silt being washed away.

"The benefit of the bamboo is that we're putting a natural material into nature," said Narin Boonruam, secretary of the provincial fishermen's association.

But the bamboo will be of little use if sea levels rise much further. One recent study published in the scientific journal Nature put the delta in the highest category of risk.

"If we don't put in any protection against coastal erosion, more than half of Bangkok province will disappear," said Panadda Tedsiri, organiser of the Thai Community Foundation, a non-governmental organsiation.

As world leaders prepare for a crucial climate change meeting, campaigners said politicians needed to address ways of countering erosion too as it affects communities around the world.

"It's a creeping disaster. Every day it has an unseen impact on many people," Tara Buakamsri, campaign manager for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, told AFP.

"It is double, not only erosion but also related climate change."

In Malaysia, officials say nearly 30 percent of the coastline is suffering erosion through population growth, urbanisation, oil and gas production, and tourism development.

In India, about 1,500 kilometres or 26 percent of the mainland coastline faces "serious erosion" and is "actively retreating", according to the Asian Development Bank.

The resort state of Goa has erected flexible barriers along two major stretches of its sandy white beaches, but the local assembly heard earlier this year that more than 10 percent of the coastline was falling into the sea.

Low-lying Bangladesh would be one of the countries worst hit by climate change. The UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says rising sea levels will devour 17 percent of Bangladesh's total landmass by 2050, leaving at least 20
million of its 144 million population homeless.

In Vietnam, a one-metre rise in sea levels by 2100 would affect over 10 percent of the population, more than nine million people, and almost 38 percent of land in the rice-growing Mekong River Delta, according to figures in a UN discussion paper
released last week.

Australia's government warned in November that rising sea levels could inundate 250,000 homes by 2100, with airports, hospitals and power stations also at risk.

Greenpeace's Tara said working with communities to find local action plans -- like the bamboo canes in Thailand -- was important to counter erosion, but added that the Copenhagen summit should also consider the issue.

"The Copenhagen summit has to come up with a very strong and fair deal with this problem and include things like erosion in the deal," Tara said.