It Takes a Village

Chiang Mai, Thailand, Oct. 28, 2010 — I awoke with a start, as the village radio blared out its tinny opening anthem before the sun breached the horizon. The nearest loudspeaker is mounted on the cement power pole on the street directly beside our house, and its sound quality, quite frankly, sucks. Even if I could speak more than a few words of Kamueng (the Chiang Mai local dialect) I would barely follow the garbled announcements, worse than on the New York City Subway. It was Sunday morning and I had just returned from my trip to Vietnam the night before, and I was so tired that I was in bed by 8 p.m. The heat and humidity remained high but the nights cool down enough now that we turn off the fan sometime in the night. And once the whirring of the fan is removed, the rhythmic humming from thousands of cicadas, the odd belching of canal frogs, the howling of community dogs and the countless chickens clucking all conspire to lull me to sleep. And then, like a kick in the ribs, the village radio comes on.

A long, drawn-out “Sawasdee kraaaap!” is about the only thing I will actually understand. The rest, announcements about garbage collection, water bills, and sundry other mundane village agenda items, is lost in the screechy static.

Because it is Sunday there will be cock fighting across the street at Loong Wang’s yard. The betting will be fast and furious, the drinking will start early, and it will be raucous. Now, in the waning days of the rainy season, the nights also bring beetle fighting (I am not making this up) where the Burmese migrants fight their prized horned beetles for additional wages. Such is life in Goo Seua (Shrine of the Tiger) Village.

cock fighting

Loong Wang (literally “Uncle Split Lip”) with one of his fighting cocks. The bouts are every Sunday in the yard behind the curtain in the background.

Where is kuhn Mai this morning?” I asked Orawan over the radio’s distorted blare. Her brother, Mai, was supposed to come by to take us to inspect his garden.

Oh, I forgot to tell you that he was called away to Lob Buri, to help fight the floods.” Orawan replied.

I had forgotten about the flooding to the south, near Bangkok, as the Chao Praya River overflowed its banks during the week I was away. Many of the policemen of the northern provinces, of which my brother-in-law is one, were called away to help with the rescue efforts. In fact these have been some of the worst floods in years, and I keep hearing from locals about how global warming is causing the increased rains that are bringing the big floods. Much of this rainfall is the result of a strong monsoon convection, possibly with some influence from the remnants of Typhoon Megi that swept over Taiwan, the Philippines and into southern China. It may or may not have anything to do with global warming, but it strikes me how nobody here even questions humanity’s impact on the climate. It is a simple statement of fact for them. While the rains fell hard and heavy over here, I was essentially without rain in Saigon and in Dalat, but I got daily updates by email from Orawan about Chiang Mai’s heavy rains.

Natural disasters like this always make me wonder if they are truly “natural” or to what extent they may actually be man-made. And I don’t mean man-made in the “global warming” way, but in that “we’ve got too many people living in areas that are prone to flooding” kind of way. How much has land use (logging, water diversion, paving of large areas, etc.) affected the amount of flooding experienced? After the big floods in Chiang Mai a couple of years back, where the waters came nearly up to our house in Goo Seua, I was impressed that nobody could recall floods of this magnitude in their memories. Bangkok, as well as all of the low-lying areas of Southeast Asia, has experienced increased flooding from heavy rains in recent years, but also from inundations from high tides. I experienced tidal flooding in November 2007 in Saigon, when we returned from a visit to the mangrove forests to find the roads all the way into central Saigon to be under more than a meter of seawater in places. This was in the total absence of rain, and the flooding was solely the result of the neap tidal surge. In my discussions with scientists at the Southern Regional Hydrometeorological Station in Saigon, they revealed that flood levels have been setting new records with each passing year as this problem gets worse. Nearly all sea level rise prediction scenarios have the Mekong Delta mostly submerged with the first meter of sea level rise, and some predictions exceed 4 meters in potential rise, possibly as much as 6 meters above current levels. This is one of the more worrying aspects of climate change for this region, since a great deal of the food productivity for the millions of Southeast Asia’s inhabitants comes from the agriculture and aquiculture of the lower Mekong Delta. With inundation from the sea all of it is in jeopardy. And the millions of people who inhabit these low-lying areas will have to go somewhere. I can only imagine the chaos that such an exodus will bring.

The village of Goo Seua, and the surrounding Amphoe of Saraphi, is no stranger to flooding, even far into its past. Located on the site of Wieng Kum Kam, the original city built by King Mengrai more than 700 years ago (the fictional King Mengrai, according to legendary and cantankerous Southeast Asian Historian Michael Vickery, a resident of Chiang Mai). Regardless of the existence of King Mengrai, there was a city that preceded Chiang Mai, called Wieng Kum Kam, and it was built along the banks of the River Ping. At some point during the medieval period, the city was moved to the current location of Chiang Mai. According to the ancient chronicles the move was due to repeated seasonal flooding that inundated the entire city several years in succession. My wife grew up along the banks of the Ping, on top of parts of Wieng Kum Kam in Ban Ba Gluey (Wild Banana Village), and artifacts of old city walls and ceramics were constantly unearthed with little understanding of their significance. From the memories of all of Orawan’s relatives and friends, nobody can recall flooding in this region to the extent of what is described in the chronicles for Wieng Kum Kam, nor to rival the floods of 2008. To this day there remains uncertainty as to the exact sequence of events at Wieng Kum Kam, but it is clear that flooding did take place, and the city was moved. A masters thesis by a Thai geomorphology student at Chiang Mai University mapped the paleo channel history of the River Ping, and it can be clearly seen on the landscape where channel configurations changed in the past. Some of these changes appear to be related to changes in river flow, while others appear to be from alterations to the river by canal cutting. Again, I weigh the roles of the natural versus man-made in the disaster scenario.

wieng kum kam

Part of the excavated ruins of Wieng Kum Kam, buried by repeated flooding in Medieval times.

Part of the excavated ruins of Wieng Kum Kam, buried by repeated flooding in Medieval times.

A paper was just published entitled “Drought Under Global Warming: A Review”, by Aiguo Dai in the journal Climate Change. It reminds me how water is the most important element in the entire debate about climate change. No matter how much temperature changes, it is mostly important because of the incumbent changes that are expected to occur with regard to the distribution and abundance of water on the planet. Too much or too little, choose your poison. This is, in essence, what my work has been about in Southeast Asia, and why I am here on this trip. The records my colleagues and I have produced over these past few years, tell a story that ought to give us pause, a story where water has been lacking in the past, often for decades, and there have been consequences. Entire civilizations have been severely disrupted in the midst of the worst droughts of the past millennium. We are searching the historical texts for corroborative references to the droughts we see in the tree ring records, and we are finding them. The fact that many of the climate models disagree with future rainfall distribution scenarios is of great concern to us, particularly for regions in the tropics where the annual periods of extreme wet and extreme dry have managed a delicate balance that the inhabitants have adapted to, and not just human inhabitants either. The recent biodiversity finds across Indochina, for both plants and animals, remind us that there is much we still don’t know about these vibrant ecosystems. How they may be affected by changes to the overall climate is a mystery to us all. These are the areas most vulnerable to climate shifts at the decadal scale, like those we have seen in the past, and with consequence equally as serious.

precipitation map

Understanding regional climate variability, especially for long term precipitation, is essential for preparing for future climate change. However model results for precipitation show considerable differences, and do not always agree.

It is our ninth wedding anniversary tomorrow, and Orawan’s birthday as well. We will spend the day by climbing the long stairway to the temple on Doi Suthep to meet the sun’s first rays, and to pray for a blessing for us all in a world that is at best indifferent, and at times downright hostile to our collective existence. In Indonesia a tsunami killed hundreds of people just this week while a volcanic eruption threatens even more, and hundreds are dead in the aftermath of typhoon Megi in the Philippines and Taiwan. But we will return to Goo Suea for the night, to a humble birthday cake that we will share with my mother-in-law and our niece, and the four mangy dogs that inhabit our yard. And all will be as it should be, as the tropical night rapidly descends upon us like a curtain, and the chorus of noises bring sleep to the village. And then that goddamned radio will come on again, but this time I will be a little more ready for it. And a new day will dawn in the Shrine of the Tiger.Tuesday morning we attended a ceremony called Sueb Chata. Based on Sanskrit the word suebmeans to extend or continue, while chata refers to birth or being. The ceremony was prompted by Orawan’s aunt who is elderly and was recently ill. The idea is that after recovery one needs to be reborn and to ensure that all the bad luck and obstacles are gone, while good health, successes and prosperity are reinforced. Your family and friends serve as witnesses to this sort of rebirth, and a monk administers blessing to all who attend. We received the blessing along with the others, and we are thankful for whatever protection this blessing may give us.

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