Climate Emergency Institute
Climate Science Library
The Most Vulnerable Populations
Chloe Muller, Thailand
Original Post: Oct. 9, 2011

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in Phuket, Thailand. Other than the slight humidity and likelihood of an evening rainstorm, one would never know there were severe weather issues affecting most of the country right now. It’s almost easy to forget that it’s monsoon season.

I’ve been living in Thailand for the past 7 months. It rains a lot. At times it’s unbearably hot and sticky. The surrounding seas are formidable and worthy of cautionary respect. These are the same waters that brought the 2004 tsunami to this corner of the world, leaving misery and heartbreak in its wake.

Across most provinces of Thailand right now, monsoon rains are changing the landscape for the worse. Over 2 million people have had their homes affected by the floods. Over 250 people have died in flood related accidents so far. Farmlands are ravaged. Rivers are overflowing, and roads are virtually underwater. Dangerous typhoons have added to the damage. These are the worst floods Thailand has seen in over 50 years. Weather experts have recognized that the rainfall is above average. 30 out of Thailand’s 77 provinces are flooded. The south flowing waters are even threatening to flood Bangkok, whose dams are nearly at capacity.

Here in the tourist Mecca of Phuket, landslides are affecting travel and safety. Because of the booming tourism economy here, many of us have the advantage of secure jobs and housing, emergency services and a decent infrastructure. But for those in the impoverished villages of the North and the Central Plains, the situation is far more precarious. Since July, 2.6 million Thais have been displaced from their homes. Nearly 10% of rice farms have been destroyed.

A population is considered to be vulnerable, or at high risk, when the fragile state of their existence is combined with the volatile nature of their environment due to climate change. Therefore, the impact of irreversible climate change upon a vulnerable population puts them at extreme risk for disease, famine, disaster, conflict, poverty and, at worst, extinction.

​The rising global temperature and the effects of greenhouse gases have led to several emergent changes in the weather patterns and overall climate of the globe. There are areas, however, where impacts of climate change are affecting the population to the extreme. This is particularly true in regions where high rates of poverty and conflict were already tearing cultures and livelihoods apart. Combined with factors such as floods, cyclones, droughts, loss of land and water resources, and earthquakes, living at the edge of vulnerability due to climate change can be tantamount to a death sentence.

The worlds’ most vulnerable populations were identified in a 2009 study by CARE International. They were listed as those living in the following regions: the Sahel, Horn and Central Africa, South and Central Asia (Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan), and South East Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Myanmar in particular). One will note that these regions are also historically prone to poverty and conflict, both foreign and domestic, which means that they are ill equipped ( or not equipped at all) to deal with an intensification in global warming-induced extreme weather events and the resultant affects upon their quality of life. Among these already threatened groups, women, children and the elderly are at thought to be at higher risk due to their limited access to education and income, as well as politically and ideologically driven factors of repression and marginalization. The three major humanitarian risks to these populations are identified as floods, cyclones and droughts. In South East Asia the populations are especially vulnerable since they are considered to be at risk for all three types of events.

In areas already affected by war, famine, loss of food productivity and clean water, a disaster (I feel that I can no longer use the term “natural disaster”, with the mounting evidence that human activities are at the root cause of all climate change induced impacts) such as a flood will affect, and perhaps destroy, a vulnerable population or cripple it for generations.

Dangerous greenhouses gases have been causing an increase in the global temperature. These gases are released by the destruction of the earth’s forests, industrial and food production, mass transportation increases and the burning of fossil fuels at an alarming rate. At the same time that conflict, poverty and disaster are ripping these vulnerable populations apart and destroying their livelihoods and cultures, there is a simultaneous increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as cyclones and floods, clearly due to an increase in temperatures worldwide, which in turn affect agriculture, economy, access to food and water and further aggravate the already fragile political situations in these regions. Put simply, a cyclone and flood wouldn’t do much damage to a well defended brick and mortar palace with a fully stocked pantry. The same cannot be said for a family of 5 living in a slum hut constructed from street refuse, who are already competing with their downtrodden neighbors for the scarce necessities of life.

​​Do we really need to think of how these situations across the globe will affect each of us personally before we make a change? Perhaps it’s worth the time to imagine the state of the planet if its most vulnerable populations perish or are pushed to the brink of extinction. An increase of conflict and poverty draws upon resources from the developed world. Disease and displacement create refugee camps and illegal slums, which in turn breed more disease. Vulnerable countries in Africa and Asia fail to compete upon the global economic stage, leaving the burden of development on a handful of industrialized nations who are already facing economic failures of their own. Food production stops. Jobs disappear. The tourism industry grinds to a halt, affecting every related business venture worldwide.

Let’s be clear: climate change is anthropogenic (caused by humans). With incontrovertible proof before our eyes, we can’t for a second pretend otherwise. We can no longer only see the sunny afternoon, ignoring the floods and cyclones of our neighbors and fellow humans. By refusing to address the irrefutable proof of a climate change state of emergency, the world’s governments, scientists and leaders who will not act to end the destructive practices of the global industrial economy are sentencing the world’s most vulnerable populations to death.

What steps can be taken to reverse these disastrous events and pull vulnerable populations away from the ledge? We must stop looking at the world as developed vs. undeveloped (“us” vs. “them”.) It is imperative that governments and experts work together to halt the destruction wrought by global warming. This means they first stop the processes that are causing the release of dangerous greenhouse gases and convert to a zero carbon system of energy production. Emergency responses to disaster- affected vulnerable areas must become preventative measures. Health and education must become priorities, so that vulnerable populations may become self-reliant and have a genuine stake in the global economy. We have all heard these ideas before. No one disagrees with the essential message. We’ve all perfected the cognitive dissonance of knowing we need to change our ways and then going about our business.

First and foremost, the threat must be recognized as real. Scientists, leaders and governments must come clean about the facts of global warming and implement pragmatic measures for their populations to embrace wholeheartedly and immediately. By ignoring the truth or distorting the evidence, we do not make the problem go away. The only option is to respond with decisive action. Now.

References:
(Copyright 2009). “Humanitarian Implications of Climate Change: Mapping Emerging Trends and Risk Hotspots” . CARE International. Used by Permission.
Thailand Floods Reach Crisis Level. (2011, October 7). Retrieved November 2011, from Bloomberg: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-10-07/thailand-floods-reach-crisis-level-threaten-bangkok-prime-minister-says.html
The Phuket Gazette. (2011). Retrieved November 2011, from http://www.phuketgazette.net/archives/articles/2011/article11170.html