Only four pupils left: like the sea has risen over a Thai village

fFrom the corridor of Khun Samut school, it is clear how far the sea has crept in. In the distance, beyond the still waters of nearby shrimp farms, sticks can be seen popping out of nowhere. They were once electricity poles, powering parts of the village that have since been submerged in Bangkok Bay.

Ban Khun Samut Chin, a coastal village in the Thai province of Samut Prakan, about 10 km from the outskirts of Bangkok, has been slowly engulfed by the sea in recent decades. The school, raised on concrete stilts, has already been forced to withdraw twice. Families have repeatedly moved their homes. Many have left altogether after finding work elsewhere. The population is getting smaller and smaller.

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There are now only four students at Khun Samut’s school. On days like today, when classmates are absent, this can mean there is only one student per class.

The four remaining students at Khun Samut's school
The four remaining students at Khun Samut’s school. Numbers have dwindled as people have moved away as invading seas have destroyed their livelihoods. Photograph: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

At lunchtime, 10-year-old Napat Ploykhao is happy to be reunited with his friend, 12-year-old Peerapab Butthong, and is hungry after a morning spent studying biology. I’m not alone because Pee’s here, says Napat of his friend, handing chunks of fried chicken to one of the school cats crouched under the table.

At the school, students are taught about issues such as the climate crisis and go on field trips to learn about conservation and understand the history of the village. The school was at sea, Napat says.

Mangroves are very important to plant because they will stop the waves, he adds. He helped plant mangroves during a forest restoration project.

The mangroves, a natural defense against the strong waves and storm surges of the Gulf of Thailand, have been drastically reduced to make room for shrimp farms. This, coupled with groundwater abstraction, as well as the development of dams on the Chao Phraya River which runs through Bangkok, which has blocked the flow of sediment downstream, has exacerbated the coastal erosion problem.

The village school in the foreground and the Buddhist Ban Khun Samut Chins temple in the distance.
The village school in the foreground and the Buddhist Ban Khun Samut Chins temple in the distance. Photograph: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

The village has suffered the worst shoreline retreat in Thailand, with estimates suggesting between 1.1km and 2km have disappeared since the mid-1950s.

I was born here, I have seen and still see the changes taking place, says the village chief, Wisanu Kengsamat.

It used to be 100 households, now it’s about 80. The population has halved, Wisanu says, describing the changes he has seen over the past four decades.

Young people have to leave the village to attend high school and often don’t come back. For some families, they no longer have a home due to erosion, so they don’t have a space to live or even make money, Wisanu says. If people can find work elsewhere as a labourer, clerk or farmer, they will leave.

Those who remain have also become more dispersed as people have sought land in safer areas, Wisanu says.

Morning snack for the students of the Khun Samut school before the start of lessons.
Morning snack for the students of the Khun Samut school before the start of lessons. Photograph: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Some students walk up to an hour along embankments and bridges to get to school, says teacher Orrawan Kaewnum. Normally, Thai schools start at 8:30am and by 8am you need to be here and ready. But here we are flexible, we cannot fix the time. If it’s a rainy day, it can take a long time. When we see dark clouds coming we close the school early.

We are like little ants in nature, adds Orrawan.

The village is at the forefront of the battle against the climate emergency and rising sea levels, a threat that is accelerating globally. Over the past decade, oceans have risen by 4.62mm a year and the crisis is worsening, prompting the UN secretary-general to warn it could lead to a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale.

An aerial photograph shows signs of coastal erosion during low tide at Ban Khun Samut Chin.
An aerial photograph shows signs of coastal erosion during low tide at Ban Khun Samut Chin. Photograph: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

Thailand, where about 17% of the population (11 million people) live in coastal areas, is particularly vulnerable.

Its capital, Bangkok, faces the compounded risk of sea level rise, as well as heavy rains and water runoff.

The threat of sea level rise often receives the least attention because it occurs incrementally, says Wijitbusaba Marome, an assistant professor in Thammasat University’s faculty of architecture and planning.

You may not see direct evidence of a disaster or people stuck in a traffic jam due to heavy rain. But it is gradually affecting your livelihood.

In Ban Khun Samut Chin, villagers have used donations and collaborated with academics from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University to try to build protective structures. Over the past two decades, they have planted 19.2 hectares (47 acres) of mangroves and built bamboo fences. In some areas, concrete posts have been installed to reduce the impact of the waves.

A Thai schoolboy crosses a wooden bridge over the seawater encroachment at Ban Khun Samut Chin
The journey to school can be precarious in Ban Khun Samut Chin. Photograph: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA

Wisanu says government support is needed so they can protect the village, but this has not been forthcoming.

Napat says he’s not sure what he wants to be when he’s older; it’s too much to think about, he says.

His grandmother, Wanna Mainuam thinks he will stay in Ban Khun Samut Chin. Villagers can raise income by opening their homes to tourists or by hosting tour groups from schools or businesses who want to learn about conservation. Napat already likes to take tourists to the temple on weekends and explain the village, her grandmother says.

Fishing has become much more difficult, he says, but he thinks tourism could provide a future. People can visit and taste fresh seafood, she adds: It’s a way for visitors to see the life of the village people.

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