The Tem­ple in the Sea

Asian Geographic - - Culture - A Bud­dhist tem­ple stands on the front­lines of cli­mate change, weath­er­ing the de­struc­tion caused by ris­ing water lev­els. For one monk, it’s sink or swim

the Paris Agree­ment on cli­mate change comes into ef­fect, many peo­ple are left won­der­ing if it’s al­ready too late to save many of the world’s vul­ner­a­ble low-ly­ing coastal com­mu­ni­ties. The science shows that sea lev­els world­wide have been ris­ing at a rate of 3.5 mil­lime­tres per year since the early 1990s. This ris­ing sea level is di­rectly linked to global cli­mate change due to three im­por­tant fac­tors: the warm­ing of the oceans, or ther­mal ex­pan­sion; the melt­ing of glaciers; and ice loss from Green­land and Antarc­tica.

A re­cent study from the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) pre­dicts that the oceans will have risen be­tween 0.8 and two me­tres by the year 2100. More dire es­ti­mates, in­clud­ing a com­plete melt­down of the Green­land ice sheet, push sea level rise to seven me­tres. This be­comes par­tic­u­larly fright­en­ing for the ap­prox­i­mately 150 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in low-ly­ing coastal ar­eas that will ei­ther be sub­merged, or ex­posed to chronic flood­ing, owing to even a small in­crease in sea lev­els.

Ac­cord­ing to Cli­mate Cen­tral, a non­profit news or­gan­i­sa­tion that analy­ses and re­ports on cli­mate science, around nine mil­lion peo­ple in Thailand alone – ap­prox­i­mately 13 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion – will be af­fected by sea level rise in the com­ing years. Bangkok, a city some­times called “the Venice of the East”, faces the threat of chronic flood­ing as ris­ing sea lev­els and sink­ing land threaten to sub­merge the cap­i­tal in the com­ing decades.

While many ex­perts can agree that Bangkok is head­ing for trou­ble, there is much de­bate about when. The loom­ing chaos may seem far off to some, but for the res­i­dents of Khun Sa­mut Chin, a small fish­ing com­mu­nity 38 kilo­me­tres south of Bangkok, sea level rise and the re­al­i­ties of cli­mate change have al­ready shaken the com­mu­nity to its core.

“In Thailand, we never think to pro­tect our­selves un­til the prob­lem is star­ing at us in the face,” says 44-year-old monk Som­nuk At­ti­pa­nyo, stand­ing in Khun Sa­mut Chin and ex­tend­ing an open hand out at the Gulf of Thailand, as if to prove his point. “In Hong Kong and Sin­ga­pore, they try to cre­ate land be­cause they don’t have enough, but here in Thailand, we’ve lost our land be­cause we don’t pro­tect it.”

Ex­perts say that 600 kilo­me­tres of the Thai coast has al­ready been lost to cli­mate change, with the Gulf of Thailand suf­fer­ing the worst rate of coastal ero­sion. As the head of the vil­lage’s Bud­dhist tem­ple Wat Khun Sa­mut Trawat, Som­nuk has been on the front­lines, bat­tling ris­ing water lev­els that have dev­as­tated the com­mu­nity for over a decade. The vil­lage has seen over a kilome­tre of land swal­lowed by the tide over the past 30 years, tak­ing with it a school, a health cen­tre, count­less homes, and forc­ing half of the pop­u­la­tion to leave. Elec­tric­ity and tele­phone poles pok­ing out of the Gulf of Thailand more than 500 me­tres from where the shore is to­day of­fer a sur­real re­minder of a once-thriv­ing com­mu­nity.

“I don’t know the cause of why the water has taken back the land,” ad­mits Som­nuk. “Ex­perts have come here, stud­ied the land, and have told me it’s re­lated to cli­mate change and cut­ting down forests. To be hon­est, I don’t re­ally un­der­stand the the­o­ries and I don’t want to un­der­stand them. In life, there are peo­ple who work with con­cepts and the­o­ries in books, and then there are peo­ple who work with their hands on the ground. The question is what we can do now to help the sit­u­a­tion.”

A tenth of its orig­i­nal size, the grounds of Wat Khun Sa­mut Trawat stand at the edge of the water, and prior to Som­nuk’s ar­rival, the tem­ple was sub­merged, all but aban­doned. Against the odds, Som­nuk’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­vive and re­store the monastery grounds has come to sym­bol­ise the com­mu­nity’s fight against the push­ing tide.

Grow­ing up in Sa­mut Prakan city, just a few kilo­me­tres from Khun Sa­mut Chin, Som­nuk worked at a fam­ily gro­cery store and led, by his own ad­mis­sion, “an un­pro­duc­tive life”, pass­ing his time by gam­bling, smok­ing and drink­ing with friends. When a close friend trag­i­cally com­mit­ted sui­cide when Som­nuk was 30 years old, it was a wake-up call to turn his life around.

“On the day my friend passed, his mother called me and asked me to be­come a monk, which is com­mon prac­tice for a short pe­riod of time in Thailand fol­low­ing a death,” Som­nuk shares. “I only planned on stay­ing at the tem­ple for a day or two. But once I ar­rived, I started eval­u­at­ing my life against the life of a monk and com­par­ing how dif­fer­ent they were. I im­me­di­ately felt a sense of com­fort and I knew I didn’t want to leave. In my twen­ties, if you told me I would be a monk for above A bar­rier pro­tects Wat Khun Sa­mut Trawat from the ris­ing water lev­els right Som­nuk At­ti­pa­nyo poses for a photo at Wat Khun Sa­mut Trawat the rest of my life, I might have laughed,” con­fesses Som­nuk, shak­ing his head.

Af­ter a year liv­ing at the tem­ple in Sa­mut Prakan, Som­nuk met a young monk from Khun Sa­mut Chin who told him of an aban­doned tem­ple in the sea and asked if Som­nuk wanted to see it for him­self.

“When I first vis­ited, much of the tem­ple was de­stroyed from water, and it was im­pos­si­ble to pray. I took it as a

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