Rising Sea Levels, Part 2: Thailand and a nod to Oz

Last week I wrote about how rising sea levels are affecting low-lying nations such as the Kingdom of Tonga. Six weeks later, I was in Thailand primarily to photograph the effects of the flooding in the Fall of 2011, but while there I also learned from a new friend about how sea level rise is affecting some communities near Bangkok.

Since I was mid-way on my around-the-world journey, I decided it would be a good time to take a break from working and so went on a week-long Buddhist meditation retreat with my new German friend Nathalie. I did not quite reach nirvana but it was a welcome respite  from work (I only brought a point-and-shoot), I tried some new Thai food, I learned more about Buddhism and meditation, and best of all, I made several new friends.

Natalie mediating on our retreat.

Natalie mediating on our retreat.

One of whom, Bisidth, was very eager to help me with my project.  A couple of days after the retreat he emailed about Ban Khun Samut Chin (บ้านขุนสมุทรจีน), a small fishing village on the Gulf of Thailand that he remembered learning about on a TV show.  He sent me a link to the show and even though it was all in Thai I got the gist of it: This small village was being inundated by sea level rise. He offered to take me there so we quickly planned a weekend outing.

Some of the monks and Bongkot heading out on a canal on a longboat.

Some of the monks heading out onto a canal on a longboat.

Even though it is only ­about 50 km southwest of Bangkok, Khun Samut Chin felt much more remote. Getting there itself was an adventure. Bisdith picked me up and after an hour’s drive through snarled Bangkok traffic we reached a small town where we met another new friend from the retreat, Sutanit (who charmingly goes by her chosen English name, Dear, and Bongkot, Bisdith’s friend. We stopped to have lunch with some of the monks from the Khun Samut Chin temple then drove a bit farther and got on a longboat for a 15 minute ride through several canals. These canals are the primary “roadways” for the people in these seaside communities in the Laem Fapha area of Samut Prakan Province. We were dropped off at a pier where we each got a community-shared bicycle and rode another 10 minutes down a concrete walkway. We parked the bikes under a shelter and then walked another 5-10 minutes over a series of dirt paths, wooden walkways, and planks to arrive in the heart of the village.

Bisdith riding a bike too small for his tall frame down one of the walkways into the village.

Bisdith riding a bike (too small for his tall frame) down one of the walkways into the village.

Walking into the center of the village over the wooden walkways. A new community center is being built on the left.

The main entrance into the center of the village over a wooden walkway. A new community center is being built on the left.

Bisidth, myself, Bongot, Dear, and the village chief, Samorn Khengsamut (seated)

Bisidth, myself, Bongot, Dear, and the village chief, Samorn Khengsamut (seated).

monastra_120505_1383We were greeted by several dogs, the village chief Samorn Khengsamut, and other local residents who were busy packing shrimp and shrimp paste into bags to sell to local communities. Formerly populated by the Chinese, it is very connected to its roots. They have a small museum with old coins, pottery, and other Chinese artifacts found on their grounds. Mrs. Samorn showed us a 2003 newspaper article stating that the villagers were hoping to build a museum to house these treasures that were scattered among various households. I was glad to see that they achieved that goal. It’s a sweet little museum jam-packed with curiosities.

Inside the museum housing Chinese artifacts

Inside the museum housing Chinese artifacts

Pieces of Chinese pottery.

Pieces of Chinese pottery.

Since shrimp and cockles are the primary source of income for this village, much of the town is made up of large plots of water where this seafood is harvested. But not all the surrounding water is a welcome presence.

Some of the villagers harvesting cockles behind our hut. I felt like I had front row seats to some of the best action in town.

Some of the villagers harvesting cockles behind our hut. I felt like I had front row seats to some of the best action in town.

A bowl of fresh-caught cockles.

A bowl of fresh-caught cockles.

A wooden walkway over one of the shrimp plots.

A wooden walkway over one of the shrimp plots photographed at dusk.

In the past fifty years, the villagers have had to relocate their homes and school four or five times due to rising sea levels and the resulting soil erosion. The only building that has not been moved is the temple. The monks refuse to move it. To try to protect it (and other small temples still being constructed) they have installed concrete triangular pillars to break the surf as well as a sea wall. I find this a rather bold move since in their current temple, which has been flooded several times, they have had to raise the floor 5-6 feet to be able to still use the temple for prayers. I noticed there are places where the power of the surf is already breaking through their new sea wall. They must have a lot of faith to believe that it will hold and not be “taken” by the sea the way Sonny’s bench in Tonga was.

One of the many village dogs that acted as my guide down the walkway to the temple.

One of the many village dogs that acted as my guide down the walkway to the temple.

The temple in Khun Samut Chin showing water damage from rising sea levels.

The temple in Khun Samut Chin shows water damage along the windows  from rising sea levels. The temple is now separated from the rest of the village buildings that have relocated inland several times. To get to the temple one must walk or ride a bike down these concrete walkways. The Gulf of Thailand can be seen in the background.

One of the monks looking at a photo of the temple being flooded during a recent storm.

One of the monks sitting in a doorway on the raised floor of the temple looking at a photo of it being flooded during a recent storm.

Samut Khun Chun is a lovely village with an interesting history, but the chief is worried about their future. There is not much solid land left in this area on which to relocate if the seas keep rising and they need to move yet again. Some of the residents are already living on land they do not own. Student volunteers have come in and planted mangrove trees to try to curb the erosion (like in Tonga) but the sea is rising faster than the trees can grow. The school has had to be rebuilt several times. From their new pier, one of the monks pointed out one of its earlier locations to us in the midst of the ocean. All that was left was a concrete block barely visible in the waves. More apparent are the old power lines that used to run along the main road of the village. Now they look like toothpicks sticking out of the water.

Sea barriers that were put in several years ago to try "break" the power of the surf and protect the area where the temple is situated.

Sea barriers  that were put in several years ago to try “break” the power of the surf and protect the area where the temple is situated. In the distance (on the left) can be seen the old telephone poles that used to mark the main road.

The new sea wall already showing signs of being worn away by the surf

The new sea wall already showing signs of being worn away by the surf.

And one of the new smaller temples being constructed outside this sea wall but behind the concrete pillars.

And to the right, one of the new smaller temples being constructed outside this sea wall but behind the concrete  breakwater pillars.

At twilight, a monk mediates on their new pier behind the breakwater.

At twilight, a monk mediates on their new pier behind the breakwater. Here too, the old power lines are visible in the distance.

The village is trying to court tourists to bring in some extra income and to raise awareness of their plight.The chief has assembled an array of pictures and documents (many enlarged and neatly laminated) that she eagerly shares with visitors. They have built a small two-bedroom hut on stilts specifically for weekend tourists. Included in the price are three meals a day that included fresh crab, dried fish, and some of their homemade shrimp paste. All the food was delicious and the villagers were very friendly. I had learned a few words of Thai by this point but still had to rely on Bisdith and Dear to translate for me.

Our little hut on stilts.

Our little two bedroom hut on stilts.

Our dinner with fresh seafood. For breakfast we were served crabs. Thankfully I had already gotten used to eaten seafood for breakfast at the meditation retreat.

Our dinner with very locally sourced food. Since there is no refrigeration, most of the fish is dried.

A couple we met on one of the paths.

A couple we met on one of the paths.

The chief with her assortment of pictures, maps and diagrams explaining how rising sea levels are threatening their village.

The chief with her assortment of pictures, maps and diagrams explaining how rising sea levels are threatening their village.

A display showing how much the sea has risen and come insland over the last 40 years. The picture on the left was taken in the early 1970's, the middle one is from the mid-90's and the last one taken in the last several years. The red box marks the site of the temple.

A display showing how much the sea has risen over the last 40 years. The small red box marks the site of the temple. The picture on the left was taken in the early 1970’s, when the temple was still surrounded by land,  the middle one is from the mid-90’s and the last one taken in the last several years. (Double-click  on this or any of the photos in these blog posts to see the images larger.)

I would highly recommend a visit here except for one thing: the startling 5 AM wake-up call of the Army radio station over the loudspeaker which was right next to our hut. I told Bisidith he might want to suggest to the chief that this might not be the desired wake-up call of most tourists. Once I had wiped the sleep out of my eyes, I found it to be kind of funny. Soon the radio announcer and singers were joined by the morning birds, a rainstorm and a proper wake-up call of a rooster.

On the way back to Bangkok, Bisidith took me by Bang Pu, a seaside park run by the Royal Thai Army known for its Sunday ballroom dancing and seafood restaurant. I was excited to see the dancing, but the main reason Bisidth brought me there was to show me how the Army, along with the World Wildlife Fund of Thailand, have planted mangroves to try to break the force of the waves before they hit the land. Together these two groups have created the Bang Pu Nature Education Centre (BNEC) to educate the public on the need for environmental conservation.

Mangroves planted along the coast of Bang Pu to slow down the surf of the rising sea.

Mangroves planted along the coast of Bang Pu to slow down the surf of the rising sea.

It was a stormy day when we were there and I am not sure if it was high tide, but the water was hitting the buildings and their arboreal “breakwater” with a lot of force. Like in Tonga, the mangroves were put in to try to protect the shore but since the ballroom and restaurant are built out onto a pier there is nothing protecting them from the rising seas. Another concern is storm surges which can be more severe as sea levels rise. In recent years when there  is news that a storm surge might sweep up the Gulf of Thailand, attendance drops significantly at this seaside resort, hurting business. Many tourist destinations worldwide are located by the sea and will likely be the first to be able to tell you about the very real threat of sea level rise.

Waves crashing up alongside the Bang Pu seafood restaurant.

Waves crashing up alongside the Bang Pu seafood restaurant.

Another place from my travels abroad that bears  a brief mention in this post is Lake Cathie (pronounced – Cat-eye) in Australia. When I was in Sydney my friend Craig showed me a newspaper article on this quaint seaside town where the residents of Illaroo Road had just been informed that they were part of a “planned retreat” due to the threat rising sea levels, This means homeowners will be expected to sell their houses to the Council rather than another homeowner.

The article in the Austrailan on Illaroo Road in Lake Cathie, Australia.

The article on Illaroo Road in Lake Cathie, Australia.

Since I was already planning to drive up the coast from Sydney to Byron Bay my friend Nathalie and I made a detour to Lake Cathie. It was blustery day threatening rain but we discovered two of the article’s featured homeowners, Russell and Anne Secomb, out working in their yard. I told them I had seen the recent article in The Australian and asked what were their thoughts on climate change. “The climate is always changing,” Russell said. “Always has, always will.” He added that they, along with the other residents, were going to fight the Council’s proposed plan.

Russell Secomb working in his yard.

Russell Secomb working in his yard.

Even though Ilaroo Road lies 7 meters above the current mean sea level, the Council stated it is more concerned about erosion than rising seas. But now, after Hurricane Sandy and seeing what the combination of sea level rise and storm surge can do to oceanfront property, I will be interested to keep an eye on what happens in Lake Cathie in the coming years.

Rising Seas, Part 1: Tonga

Rising Sea Levels – Part One: Tonga

Preface: I started writing a post about sea level rise in Tonga and Thailand last summer when I was still traveling. But when I came down with malaria near the end of my trip, I never finished it. After Hurricane Sandy and a recent trip I took to Florida, I think now is an apt time to finish and post this while this issue is at the forefront of many people’s minds. 

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A sunken boat off the island of Pangaimotu, Tonga

Seas are rising because of several reasons. The two primary ones being:

1)  As air and ocean temperatures increase, seas expand since warm water has more volume than cold water.

2)   Melting land ice from glaciers and ice caps is increasing the volume of water in the oceans.

I already mentioned the issue of sea level rise in my post on Hawaii  but the effects were much more visible in my visit to The Kingdom of Tonga. Located in the South Pacific, Tonga is an archipelago made up of 176 islands, of which only 36 are inhabited. Along with hotter temperatures, the biggest threat facing Tonga and all low-lying nations is that of rising sea levels. The people of the Cartaret Islands also in the South Pacific have the unfortunate claim to fame of being the first climate change refugees to be relocated due to this problem.

Compared to large developed nations like the US and China, small nations like Tonga contribute very little to greenhouse gases. Yet, this does not mean they are unaware of the causes and effects of climate change. I saw a poster at a local church encouraging residents to do what they can to fight climate change and take care of the environment.

Boy and climate change poster at Catholic Church in Nuka' alofa

Boy and climate change poster at Catholic Church in Nuka’ alofa

To get to Tonga I flew 3 hours from Auckland, New Zealand into the capital of Nuka’alofa on the island of Tongatapu. I was greeted at the airport by Makanesi Pale – a friend of a friend of a friend… who I thought was just going to be my ride into town but “Maka” ended up being my guide, translator, travel agent and guardian angel.  He dropped me off to have my first “couch-surfing” experience with Kathleen, a German nurse and dive master working in Tonga, and her 2 roommates Tahi and Delu.  They welcomed me into their home and quickly confirmed my suspicions that “Couchsurfing” is an amazing global social network helping travelers find a place to crash for free and/or someone to proudly show you around their town.

Since I had read that Sunday is primarily a church-going day  in Tonga, I asked Maka if he could take me to his. The main reason I wanted to go was to hear the singing which was indeed heavenly. The Catholic wooden-framed church was simple but elegant.

I was also enchanted with the traditional clothing that many of the parishioners wore. Men commonly wear taʻovala or “mats”  around their waist to show respect. The kiekie is the more decorative version worn by women. When a family member dies, Maka told me that the surviving members will wear all black clothing plus a more elaborate ta’ovala for up to six months.

Tongan children wearing ta'ovala mats

The boy in this picture is wearing a ta’ovala while the girl on the left is wearing a kiekie.

After Mass, Maka took me out to the island of Pangaimotu . It was brutally hot under the midday sun and although I would have preferred to be there later in the afternoon to photograph, the last boat back was at 2pm. Maka wanted me to see how the coconut trees were being killed by the salty ocean waters that flood the island every day at high tide.

Coconut trees being killed by rising sea levels

Coconut trees being killed by rising sea levels

He pointed out that local residents are trying to create a protective barrier around this island by planting mangroves along the coastline, but the ocean seemed to be winning the battle. Some of the mangroves were starting to grow but it would be a long while before these small saplings could offer any protection for the island.

Mangrove sapling planted to try to hold back rising seas that are killing vegetation on the island

A mangrove sapling at low tide, planted to try to hold back rising seas that are killing vegetation on the island

Maka trying to cool off in some shade

Maka trying to cool off in some shade on Pangaimotu Island

After returning to Nuka’alofa, Maka gave me a tour of Tongatapu – the kingdom’s largest island. We ended our tour at a spectacular place: the island’s blowholes. With the setting sun back-lighting the streams of water the effect was magical.

Tongapatu's magical blow holes

Tongapatu’s magical blow holes

I was mesmerized as water hit the rocks below me and then shot up sky-high through these naturally created blowholes. All the way up the coastline I could see spouts of dancing water. I wondered aloud if rising sea levels will take away this delightful experience once the water gets high enough to cover the rocks 24/7 instead of just crashing into them at high tide. Maka said he didn’t know but it could happen. I might have to go back in ten or twenty years and see what has become of this mystical phenomena that is one of the highlights of a visit to the capital.

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Curious to see what was happening to some of the smaller Tongan islands, I headed north to the Ha’apai group of islands. I had wanted to take a ferry but was told it did not run on the days I needed to travel. I was lucky to get a seat on a renovated 1940’s DC-3 plane. Clearly Chatham Pacific (“The Friendly Airlines”) is very proud of it for in each seat-pocket they had a history of the plane they named “Tangaloa” or “God of the Sky.” Due to the slow pace and simple lifestyle of Tongans I was already feeling like I was in another era.  Once I got on this cool retro plane I really felt like I had traveled back in time.

The renovated DC-3 plane that took me to Lifuka.

The renovated DC-3 plane that took me to Lifuka.

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Maka had arranged for me to stay at Evaloni’s Guesthouse in Pangai on the island of Lifuka. From my second floor balcony I enjoyed watching the school children and teachers walk to and from school. I discovered I was not the only one who found the March sun to be blisteringly hot as I watched the passersby shield themselves with parasols, books, and one student even used his guitar.

Students walking to school in Pangai under the heat of the morning sun

Students walking to school in Pangai under the heat of the morning sun

A couple of times in the late afternoon I borrowed a bike and rode up and down the island’s main road looking for areas to photograph that showed signs of the rising sea. I didn’t have to look hard as all along the shoreline I could see the effects from the rising waters and the erosion it was causing. Tupou mentioned that recent heavy storms had caused significant damage to the local hospital and that residents were now considering whether it should be moved more inland.

Sandbags have been put up along the shoreline to try to protect Pangai's hospital from further damage from rising seas and storm surges

Sandbags have been put up along the shoreline to try to protect Pangai’s hospital from further damage from rising seas and storm surges

In Tonga “inland” is a relative term since many of the islands are very narrow and long, so moving buildings away from the shores is only a temporary solution. From the western end of the island, residents used to be able to walk over to nearby Uoleva island at low tide, but this practice had now become obsolete ,as well as dangerous. Due to rising sea levels  the water is never low enough to cross safely at any time of day.

View from the tip of LIfuka to Uovela

View from the tip of Lifuka to Uoleva

An aerial view showing how close Lifuka nad Uoleva are

An aerial view showing how close Lifuka and Uoleva are

At the other end of the Lifuka, there is a narrow causeway that allows locals to drive to the next island of Foa. Apparently high tide now covers the road on a daily basis requiring a road crew to be on standby for frequent repairs.

monastra_120314_4140Since there was no way to walk to Uoleva I took a boat there to stay at Captain Cook’s Hideaway. There are no roads or cars on this island so the pace of life is even more laid-back.  The owner Sonny told me that he has noticed the change in sea level. He gave me a postcard that depicted a little bench he had made from driftwood for guests to watch the sun set over the water. “One day a few years ago I went out and the ocean had taken that bench. It was just gone,” he said.

Sonny showing me the spot where his bench used to be

Sonny showing me the spot where his bench used to be

Since it was off-season and I was the only guest, Sonny let me pick which fale (beach hut) I wanted to stay in.  I chose the one closest to the water. monastra_120313_3486

From my front door, I counted just eight steps to where the ocean came at high tide. I wonder how many years it will be before the water will reach the hut. Sonny told me: “I didn’t want to build that close to the water’s edge, but I have some guests who have come for thirty years and they begged me to build a hut closer to the ocean. Now I regret it, “ he lamented.

My fale at Captain Cook's Hideaway. The red line marks the top of the water during high tide - just 8 short steps to the door

My fale at Captain Cook’s Hideaway. The red line marks the top of the water during high tide – just 8 short steps to the door

I told him that some people in the US don’t believe that problems like rising sea levels are connected to global warming. He said they should just come there and see it for themselves. All along the shoreline, felled trees littered the beach. It reminded me of a graveyard or a battlefield with wounded soldiers.monastra_120313_3766

Trees next to my hut that are on their "last legs."

Trees next to my hut that are on their “last legs.”

At the edge of the beach, the red roots of palm trees were sticking out. They looked like exposed veins, raw and vulnerable.

monastra_120313_3650At twilight, many of the trees looked like creatures that were crawling into or out of the sea.

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monastra_120313_3792I felt conflicted. Here I was in this beautiful tropical environment and yet everywhere I looked there were clear signs of how climate change is negatively impacting the landscape. It was a bittersweet experience. I wanted to chill out and just soak up the sun and surf while I was there but it was hard to relax wondering if Tongans will have the same fate as their Pacific neighbors of the Carteret Islands and have to leave their islands to find homes on higher ground. With sea levels predicted to rise at least another 18 – 55 cm (7- 22 inches) by the end of the century, it might only be a matter of time before my fale ends up being a house-boat floating out to sea.

Next up:  Sea Level Rise – Part 2: Thailand