When Wissanu Kengsamut was younger, he and his friends would go to the local temple every weekend to watch movies at the outdoor cinema. Nearby, others would come to hang out, play chess or football and gather for religious ceremonies. But today, there is no longer any grassfield for the villagers to lay their mats on.
In less than 30 years, the sea has entirely swallowed the land and much of the community.
The town of Ban Khun Samut Chin in Samut Prakan province is located right by the mouth of the Chao Phraya, Thailand’s major river. According to the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR), Ban Khun Samut Chin has been eroding at a rate of three to five meters every year with a land subsidence rate of 1-2 centimetres annually. Since the 1990s, 4,000 rai (6.4 sq. km.) of land have gone underwater.
“As a kid, I didn’t think much about possessions or money, but I thought about my friends,” Kengsamut, 38, now the village’s headman, said. “Moving felt like a loss.”
For years, villagers chipped in money to preserve this temple, but despite their efforts, it is now stranded amidst the sea. Around the village, electricity poles stuck out of the water and houses sat on stilts, walls stained with water marks almost two meters tall. Narrow wooden planks form bridges above muddy waters cluttered with water bottles.
“Back then, you’d walk awhile and find two kilos of crab,” said Suwan Buapai, the community’s local guide. “Today, you’d walk two kilometres and find just a single crab.”
In the 70s, Ban Khun Samut Chin was like any other coastal fishing community where over a thousand people lived. But as Bangkok developed, located just an hour’s drive away, the village took a side blow from the multitude of problems that came with the capital’s urbanisation.
“In the past 20 years, we used a lot of groundwater for water supply and industrial use,” said Sucharit Koontanakulvong, Water Resources System Research Unit Head at Chulalongkorn University. “The beach erosion is caused by aquaculture development and [the conversion of mangrove areas into shrimp farms] in the upper Gulf of Thailand.”
With now dysfunctional ecosystem services, the sea kept creeping in, and those who lived by the coastline moved further inland. While Kengsamut has moved thrice, some villagers have moved up to 11 times.
Eventually, many villagers moved to other towns and provinces. Unemployment increased and development slowed down. Today, only about 200 people remain.
“There used to be up to 120 students and 20 teachers in this school,” Mayurie Konchen, principal of the Ban Khun Samut Chin school, said. “It was a pretty normal school.”
Today, there are only four students left, each of them in different grade levels, making the school the smallest in Thailand. With just two teachers attempting to cover the eight subjects to children of different ages, the students face challenges to read, write and communicate properly.
“The ones who have stayed are the ones who can’t afford to leave,” Konchen said. “Their parents struggle with issues like addiction or financial hardships.”
But in the late 90s, the community began replanting mangroves, as well as building breakwaters and constructing stone barriers to serve as buffer zones from the coastal waves and storm surges.
“The [former] village headman realised that if we kept moving, there’d be nowhere else to go,” Kengsamut said.
With advice from university professors, they also adopted eco-tourism to diversify their income stream and raise money for conservation. They began offering visitors a tour around the village, inviting people to plant mangroves, shuck oysters and cook local food. In 13 years, they’ve raised over 1.3 million baht (USD43,000).
Before the adaptation plan, households would have to relocate every three years on average. Today, it’s been 15 years since they’ve had to move. There are now over 100 rai (160,000 sq.m.) more of mangrove forests and the population has also increased.
“But if you let the villagers fix the [climate change] problem alone, there’s no way they would succeed because it is a global issue,” Kengsamut said.
A 2019 study by Climate Central reveals that sea-level rise is projected to reach up to 2.1 metres by 2100. This would cause coastal flooding and potentially affect 300 million people in low-lying coastal areas in countries like Thailand, China, Bangladesh, India and Vietnam. Meanwhile, Koontanakulvong said sea level rise is 4 mm per year but is projected to increase after 2030.
Sea level rise in Thailand
“The DMCR still has no plans on studying sea level rise,” said Chutima Boonritseephong, Director of DMCR’s Marine Geology Sector. “We are currently studying the vulnerability of the [Samut Prakan] area to coastal erosion. But this is research work, not yet mitigation.”
Because of its agricultural landscape, Ban Khun Samut Chin doesn’t reap in as much income to return revenue and taxes to the state unlike industrial, urban or touristic cities. With a small population whose votes weigh less than that of bigger cities, community livelihood and development here are often overlooked.
“This place holds high historical significance,” Buapai said. “If we let this place crumble down, it will become a mere folktale to share and reminisce, and the new generation will no longer know what this place is.”