Living with flooding as our climate changes

25 February 2021

Flooding in the floodplain area of Lower Northern Thailand has been having disastrous consequences for the locals for decades.

Growing up in the region, Phaothai Sin-Ampol lived through many of these flooding events, but did not see any resolutions forthcoming.

“The commonly given reason for the flooding is that there is no dam infrastructure upstream; however the reality is much more complicated than this.”

“Climate change has been causing unprecedented levels of flooding which are impacting people’s lives, and people are beginning to realise this now.”

With a background as a lecturer in Human Geography, Phaothai came to The Australian National University in 2017 to research possible ways for individuals in rural and urban communities to stabilise their situation, and transform flood risk management in their area. 

“Through my PhD research, I hope to contribute to making significant changes for people in my homeland to live with floods more peacefully.”

For his research, Phaothai has been working closely with both local people and those in government positions.

“The concept of ‘community-based adaptation’ is key for this process, to address the multiple pressures that the local people are facing from climate variability, centralised development and technocratic governing.”

 “I spent more than a year doing fieldwork in Thailand to help develop provincial planning processes. I worked closely across different social groups, to learn what local people have been doing on surrounding landscapes to help live with the floods, and trying to reach out to policymakers and practitioners to understand the situation from their perspectives.”

During his fieldwork, Phaothai realised the importance of putting a spotlight on the local communities, who are left out of policy and planning processes.

“There has been no collaboration with these people in terms of developing policies. Yet they are the most important agent in reflecting the inequality between rural and urban communities, and reflecting who in the community is impacted most by the flooding.”

“Even though some of them, such as rural farmers, women, elderly people in the city and the urban poor, perceived themselves or are labelled as vulnerable during flooding, they put the hardest effort to anticipate a better future for the community. They also raised the principle of sharing the risks of flooding more equitably between rural and urban settlements, which is an idea that the state government has not raised.”

Moving forward, Phaothai says there needs to be more collaboration between policy-makers, practitioners, and the community.

“In order to balance out power dynamics, the state government should involve the local people in developing policies and responses to the flooding. Academic and civil society sectors, from regional to international levels, as well as the river basin committee, should facilitate iterative learning from the local people about flood-related and livelihood contexts to reform policy.”

Addressing climate change adaptation will be key to this, says Phaothai.

“Climate change is being seen as the ‘next important step’ that requires the government to really concentrate on diverse livelihood patterns and alternatives to adapt better to increasing climatic variability. These adaptation measures can be co-designed with local people themselves.”

The ANU Climate Change Institute awarded Phaothai with a supplementary PhD scholarship in 2018. He has used the funds to participate in both fieldwork and conferences, as well as enrolling in some specific courses to develop his research and expand his expertise to help local communities in the future.