In the garden of dead flowers, the elderly farmer told me of the flood that ruined his livelihood— yet somehow, he was smiling.
All around us, brown orchids rotted in the debris left from late last year, when the worst floods in half a century ravaged Thailand. Nearly 400 people died, millions were displaced, and two thirds of the country was inundated by October. This canal community near Bangkok, where small boats connect wooden stilt houses, was especially devastated: old sandbags are everywhere, and on many buildings one can see the telltale watermark, a blurred brown reminder of how dire the deluge had been.
This orchid farmer, and scores of Thais who fled the rising waters, know that climate change is real. They’re already feeling the effects.
In an effort to spare some areas—industrial centers, the most heavily touristed and wealthier neighborhoods— the municipality of Bangkok diverted water into poorer communities, intentionally keeping them underwater for weeks. Riots broke out, with residents fighting to dismantle the dykes that kept their homes artificially submerged.
It didn’t have to be this way. The monsoons were heavy, but deforestation, the filling in of canals (by design or by trash blockage), and development in floodplains limited the land’s natural ability to absorb water. The government’s monumental mismanagement only compounded the problem.
While it’s impossible to blame a single natural disaster on climate change, it is part of the global pattern that scientists have long predicted: Increasingly frequent and extreme weather events. What’s also clear is that while climate disasters invariably affect less developed countries first and worst, governmental inability to respond to these disasters can amplify their severity— and continue a pattern of prioritizing privileged sectors of the population, as we saw in Bangkok.
A weathered boatman, who proved his claim to 40 years on the canal by his dexterity in maneuvering his craft, spoke vividly about the floods: the disruption, the evacuation, the destroyed homes.
“When was the last time a flood like this happened?” I asked. He perched on the dock, thinking. “1942,” he said. In his lifetime, he’d never seen anything like it. And now, the seasons were mixed up— too much rain in the rainy season, too much heat in the dry. “The weather is confused,” he said, squinting into the hot sun.
In this place of poverty and water, climate change is no abstraction. On May 5th, people across the world will join together to connect the dots between extreme weather and climate change for their communities and their leaders. I’ll be in Cambodia— where will you be?