Adaptation to climate change and social justice: Challenges for flood and disaster management in Thailand
Chapter 9 in Climate Change Adaptation in the Water Sector
by Louis Lebel, Tira Foran, Po Garden, Jesse B Manuta (2009)
Over the past 30 years, the number and impact of flood disasters has continued to increase across Asia (Dutta and Herath, 2004; ABI, 2005). This has occurred despite vastly improved abilities to monitor, warn and describe floods. In Thailand, this, in part, reflects growth in absolute numbers of people living in flood-prone areas and higher values of infrastructure at risk (Nicholls et al, 2007). Thus, around Bangkok, Chiang Mai and other urbanizing regions, new flood-sensitive settlements and land uses are expanding into low-lying wetlands and rice paddy landscapes.
As elsewhere, flood waters are increasingly managed primarily to protect cities and related infrastructure (Takeuchi, 2001). Better early warning systems and improved emergency response capacities have helped to reduce losses of life. But infrastructure-based prevention measures are costly. Moreover, flood walls and diversions can also end up shifting, rather than reducing, some of the flood damage risks and costs onto others (Lebel and Sinh, 2007). Top-down policy-making and programme design on disasters can result in poor coordination among agencies, weak links among pre- and post-event actions and other institutional problems (Manuta et al, 2006). In the absence of effective insurance or transparent compensation schemes managing flood-disaster risks has emerged as an important social justice issue in Thailand.
The pursuit of social justice or fair access to resources and allocation of risks, benefits and burdens (Elster, 1992) in managing floods and disasters may be made more difficult by climate change in several ways (Thomalla et al, 2006; Lebel, 2007). First, the expected changes in burdens and risks are distributed very unevenly across peoples, places and generations (Adger, 2001; Thomas and Twyman, 2005). Second, international action and agreements on adaptation and mitigation are dominated by the interests of wealthy and powerful nations and therefore may not sufficiently take into account the interests, needs or capabilities of vulnerable groups (Paavola and Adger, 2006). Third, the details of how climate change will effect seasonal precipitation and extreme rainfall events, and how this, in turn, will interact with other changes in land and water use to alter flood regimes, is filled with important uncertainties.
This case study focuses on issues of social justice in how floods and disasters are being managed in Thailand. Based on a critique of historical policies and practices, it draws inferences about the key challenges posed by altered flood regimes resulting from climate change and adaptation policies. These underline the importance of a politics of adaptation that emerges from contested and changing perceptions and experiences of risks. Our main conclusion is that persistent social injustices could be made worse by both inaction and misguided climate change adaptation policies.