Madeleine Gordon| Climate Change & Energy Security Fellow
The year is 2020. Fires dominate the headlines, a global pandemic is upending society and an unhealthy dose of drought compounds the country’s problems. You could be forgiven for thinking I was talking about Australia. But if there is one thing Australians can be grateful for so far, it is that we haven’t experienced the worst of these issues concurrently—the country’s first COVID death came after all fires were contained.
The same can’t be said for our Thai neighbour. Over the last two months, Thailand has weathered this triple threat.
It was the first country outside of China to record a case of COVID-19. The administration then failed to act with the immediacy and force necessary to prevent domestic spread.
However, strict lockdown rules have since been implement. Thailand also has one of the region’s best health systems which has further minimised the virus’ impact. As of 13 May, Thailand had 3017 cases and 56 deaths.
The economic impacts of the virus have been substantial. Like Australia, Thailand is highly reliant on its tourism industry which accounts for 20 per cent of its national income. There is also a limited capacity for many Thais to work from home due to the absence of facilitating technology.
Suicides as a result of economic hardship have become an increasing issue, with scholars concerned that these deaths may soon exceed those killed directly by the virus.
Meanwhile, the country is in severe drought. This is largely attributed to China’s damming of the Mekong River which is limiting supplies to downstream countries. Short Monsoon seasons and high temperatures have exacerbated the issue.
In 2019, Monsoon rains in the Mekong Basin, which includes Thailand, began two weeks later and stopped three weeks earlier than normal. This drought is expected to cost Thailand THB46bn ($2.2bn) in 2020.
And then there are the fires.
Forest fires in the Chiang Mai region of Northern Thailand have been burning out of control since mid-March. Both firefighters and army personnel are involved in containment efforts, although many hotspots have been left to residents to contain. At least six people have died and many more have been displaced.
On 30 March, air pollution was eight times higher in Chiang Mai than the safe level identified by the World Health Organisation. While the number of hotspots has decreased in recent weeks, the fires remain an issue.
Battling the fires, the drought and the virus concurrently is challenging the already unstable regime of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. There are also concerns that this situation will undermine social cohesion due to the disproportionately harsh effect it is having on low-income earners and rural regions.
So, how can Australia prevent a future that looks like Thailand’s present? The commonality across these issues is that each are exacerbated by climate change.
A warmer atmosphere augments the frequency of drought by increasing the rate of evaporation. This depletes soil moisture, increasing the need for irrigation.
The effect of a drier, warmer climate on fire is well documented. But the climate change-fire link extends beyond this. Higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can have a fertilising effect on vegetation, increasing the available fire fuel. The absorption of carbon dioxide and nitrogen by plants has also been linked to slower leaf litter decomposition and decreased consumption by herbivores.
Climate change worsens infectious diseases as pathogen fertility, offspring survival, lifespan and bite rates are highly temperature dependent. Over the coming years, some parts of the world will grow too warm for certain pathogens but other areas, that were previously too cold, will become warm enough for transmission.
These newly exposed areas will have neither the immunity nor the experience needed to deal with these diseases. This suggests that even if climate change doesn’t increase the number of people living in climates that facilitate disease transmission, it will likely increase the mortality rate.
Extreme weather events also destroy the natural habitats of pathogens, pushing them into urban environments and exposing humans to the diseases they carry. The link between habitat loss and pandemics was illustrated in 2015—the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was most likely the result of deforestation.
While there is a lot to admire about Thailand, its current situation is not something we should aspire to. There is a warning here and Australia should heed it.
Madeleine Gordon is the Climate Change & Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.