Creeping increase of sea level continuously attacking coastal areas in Thailand as well as ASEAN countries

Should now stakeholders be concerned about and provide coping plan on the possibly severe seawater inundation?

 

Climate change is now unambiguous and recognized by people globally. Whether you call it climate change, global warming or greenhouse effects, it has significantly impacted all sectors of every nation, including the coastal zones and fishery resources in Southeast Asia and my home country of Thailand. Our understanding of climate change events, however, remains insufficient. It is imperative that scientific knowledge, information, and resources are pooled in order to support and stimulate the knowledge of stakeholders and policy makers to make them aware of the impacts of climate change. Science and technology can play an important role in supporting effective policy making that can lessen the impacts of climate change and lead to sustainable development for countries worldwide. Unfortunately, most policy makers are not scientists and the information they need is often different from information provided by scientists.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Mission to ASEAN (USASEAN), recognized the need for better scientific information in guiding policy making. They have exerted extreme efforts to help ASEAN Member States toward promoting science diplomacy approaches for enhancing the capacity of science-based policies and strengthening the balanced knowledge between policymakers and scientists. In partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), they have created the ASEAN-U.S. Science and Technology Fellowship program (https://www.usaid.gov/asia-regional/asean-us-science-and-technology-fellows-program). The chosen scientists will be embedded in sectoral or line ministries or other agencies within their home countries, providing these institutions with increased technical capacity to make informed, science-based decisions.

As a Thai scientist, I have been awarded a fellowship for the second year of the program. I have undertaken a project entitled “The Guidance on Seawater Inundation Impact Prevention in Rural Coastal Areas, the Gulf of Thailand to Policy Decision Making and Collaboration among ASEAN Countries”. This project is related to climate change and coastal management and links to the Roadmap for the ASEAN Community, 2009-2015. The goal of my research is to respond to climate change and address its impacts by enhancing capacity of stakeholders and policy makers to understand climate-relevant issues and exchange information and scientific technologies.

Someone might think that coastal flooding and seawater inundation, which is mainly due to rising sea level, is astonishing for Thailand. However, many coastal areas in the country’s two seaside coasts (Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea) have been experiencing such flooding with increasing frequency.

Coastal flooding incident in Laemsing District, Chanthaburi Province, Thailand impacted many villages. (Source: http://www.siamrath.co.th)
Tidal flooding with 20-30 cm high waters occurred at beaches 1 km along the coastline of Trang Province, Thailand. (Source: http://www.siamrath.co.th)

Coastal areas in Thailand, as well as other coastal countries, are geographically vulnerable to tidal flooding and now exacerbated by increase of relative sea level. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has now released its fifth assessment report and indicates that Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) had continuously been rising at rates of 3.2 mm per year during 1993-2010. The rise in GMSL is projected to be ongoing throughout the 21st century. Projections indicate GMSL in the latter part of the century (2081-2100) relative to the period of 1986-2005 could rise by 0.63 m or around 6.63 mm/year. This rate, which is mostly caused by thermal expansion and melting of glacial and ice sheets, will lead to seawater inundation that adversely impacts coastal countries and small islands, especially the ASEAN countries. Likewise, the sea level for Thailand’s two seacoasts has significantly risen at an average rate of 3-6 mm per year from 1981 to 2006 (Neelasri, 2008), and is anticipated to become worse in the near future (NREPP,  2011). Southeast Asia START (2010) also reported that the average increase of sea level in 2030-2049 relative to that of 1980-2000 would be 13.26 cm and 10.89 cm for the southern and eastern coasts of the Gulf of Thailand, respectively. Meanwhile, the relative sea level in Laemsing District, Chanthaburi Province, the study area of my project in the eastern part of the Gulf of Thailand, has increased by 10.50 mm/year during 1993-2004. This increase is higher than the observed and predicted rise of GMSL mentioned above.

Increase of relative sea level in the study area (Source: Panpeng, Morshed and Salin)

The rising relative sea level has already adversely affected the livelihoods of people and physically degraded the ecosystem in Laemsing District. Coastal flooding as a result of increased relative sea level now occurs annually during November-January and impinges on roads, health stations, and other facilities as well as aquaculture structures, especially fish ponds. Furthermore, the flood-affected fish ponds do not receive any compensatory support from the Government of Thailand because dealing with the impacts of tidal flooding or seawater inundation is beyond the current governmental mandate. However, farmers confronted with flooding due to excessive rainfall could be assisted by the government in terms of compensation. Four Sub-districts in Laemsing District are at high risk of experiencing sea-level rise and seawater inundation. Simulated total sea level in these Sub-districts in 2050 shows a potential increase by about 0.50 m from that of 2000. This increasing rate would cause land loss by 87.77 km2 and affect about 2060 households. Furthermore, the negative effects of seawater inundation will be intensified in 2090. By then, the lost lands and affected households could be up to 119 km2 and 4718 households, respectively due to the projected increase of relative sea level by 117 cm. Meanwhile, aquaculture areas would be most affected, especially shrimp ponds which are mostly located in low-lying areas of the four Sub-districts.

Anticipated inundation in the study area in 2050 (Left panel) and in 2090 (Right panel) (Source: Panpeng and Morshed (2015) for the left panel)

Based on the above mentioned two years of consideration, many coastal areas in Laemsing District might sink and some areas could become islands in the future. If adaptation activities for the impacts of seawater inundation are not enacted, the economic loss and adaptation cost could be increased in the future. Therefore, my research proposes possibly reactive and proactive strategies to address these problems, which include 1) lowering the opportunity of occurrence of relative sea-level rise, 2) protecting biophysical conditions, 3) strengthening livelihood quality of local coastal people, 4) spurring climate change awareness of local coastal people, and 5) increasing performance of climate change adaptation toward more research studies. Since seawater inundation could be getting worse in Thailand, a collective effort should be urgently done to deal with it, today is the best time not tomorrow. I hope that the results of my work can provide a bright light at the end of tunnel and help Thailand as well as other ASEAN Member States in dealing with the impacts of seawater inundation.

The ASEAN-U.S. Science and Technology Fellowship Program has provided huge benefits, not only to me as a Fellow but also my office (National Economic and Social Development Board; NESDB) and my host agency (Department of Fisheries; DoF). Personally, the program has improved my oral and written communication skills. As a scientist this is especially important as I seek to use my knowledge to inform policymakers who are in influential positions. Furthermore, it has also given me the opportunity to analyze information and understand the policymaking procedures used by government agencies.

Source: Jirawat Panpeng

This program has also been highly beneficial to my office as it enabled the office to create sustainable regional and spatial development projects. As a result, my office will be capable of developing suitable regional development plans and providing clear suggestions to provincial government officers in preparing suitable provincial plans and projects, particularly at the nexus of climate change adaptation and coastal management. The information and data provided in my report for the Fellowship program could be applied by my host agency in creating its strategic plan and the master plan for coastal fishery and aquaculture development. Consequently, the program provided an opportunity for creating close relationships among my host agency, ASEAN, USAID, USASEAN, and NESDB to accurately deal with scientific information leading to adequate policy making for the sustainability of Thailand.

In addition, the ASEAN-U.S. Science and Technology Fellowship Program also addresses challenges about networking among countries in the ASEAN Community, and serves as important facilitator among the ASEAN Member States for working together and sustaining assistance to each of the countries. The current Fellows have been trying to extend the goals of the fellowship program and develop sustainability of ASEAN through the application of science and technology for crafting acceptable and adequate policies, especially under the themes of biodiversity, fisheries and climate change. In fact, we have initially developed a research proposal to request research funding from USAID’s Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) program. We aim to create a regional research network in order to sustain the fishery resources in the South China Sea. Finally, each Fellow’s country can benefit from the proposed research for sustainable management of their respective marine fisheries. Meanwhile, this proposed research project will be mostly dealt with by using the policy-making experiences that we have gained from the ASEAN-U.S. Science and Technology Fellowship Program.

About the author: Jirawat Panpeng, M.S. is a Thai scientist awarded the 2nd ASEAN-U.S. Science and Technology Fellowship program.