I’m no expert on the subject, but I am aware that human activity is largely responsible for worsening drought and floods worldwide. Thailand itself has been one of the hardest hit countries, by the tragic tsunami in 2004 and catastrophic floods in 2011. Yet such fundamental issues as showing respect for nature were not even addressed by the delegates, who were more interested in proposing new dam projects and other schemes that can bring big profits for the companies involved.
Perhaps the summit’s theme, ‘Water Security and Water-Related Disasters’, encouraged a commercial rather than ideological slant to proceedings. Also, Thailand’s recent commitment to spend US$12 billion on water-related projects in the next five years acted as a strong incentive for hi-tech companies to unveil early-warning programmes based on telemetry and other advanced communication systems.
My concerns began as soon as I entered the memorably-named Chiang Mai International Convention and Exhibition Center Commemorating His Majesty’s 7th Cycle Birthday Anniversary, which covers an incredible half a million square meters and was built at a cost of US$100 million.
The energy bills for running the air-con alone must be astronomical, and when I considered the expenses for over 1000 delegates from more than 40 countries to attend the event (flights, fancy hotels and so on), along with the construction of hi-tech booths to impress the public, not to mention hundreds of heavily-armed security personnel, it was obvious that the event would both cost a fortune and leave a huge carbon footprint.
Sadly, wastefulness was glaringly apparent at the summit. On arrival, all delegates and participants were presented with a shoulder bag containing a souvenir shirt (unlikely to be worn after the event as the date was stamped on the pockets), a thumb drive containing some academic papers on the water situation and several notebooks and pens. I wondered how many trees had been cut down to create a bunch of notebooks that would probably be stored in a cupboard and forgotten. Doesn’t everyone take notes digitally these days?
Each of the main exhibition booths was fronted by a pair of drop-dead gorgeous receptionists, who handed out more freebies (fans, pens and more notebooks) to visitors, and posed for endless photos. At the most popular reception desks, the girls dressed like water engineers, in boiler suits and hard hats, with long tresses flowing over their shoulders, boiler suits open to the navel, and high-heeled, knee-length boots.
The exhibition, as it turned out, had little to do with water but lots to do with technology. Each booth had several huge touch-screen monitors displaying complex graphics and footage of the Bangkok floods in 2011, resulting in a cacophony of sound assaulting visitors’ ears. Predictably, comments by Thailand’s King Bhumibol were scattered around, though few exhibitors had heeded his simple observation that “if there is no water but there is electricity, we will perish…”. All proposed solutions at the summit to water-related disasters depended heavily on a constant power supply, something that’s unlikely in the event of a major disaster.
In the technical workshops and round tables I attended, knowledgeable experts extolled the virtues of remote sensors and fibre-optic cables, while CEOs and heads of state expressed trite comments about ‘the water problem’. It seemed that despite the enormous expense of holding this summit, nothing significant would result from it.
These fears were confirmed when the ‘Chiang Mai Declaration’ was released after the summit. It consists of nothing but vague statements about co-operation between nations and increasing the transfer of technology. If you want to see the whole thing, you can find it here.
As I left the complex on the last day, feeling frazzled after battling with other photographers for a decent shot of dignitaries like Yingluck Shinawatra (the Thai Prime Minister), dark clouds rolled down the Ping Valley from the north, signalling a monsoon downpour.
I almost wished it would inundate the convention center, giving the hot-shot technocrats a chance to put their disaster-avoidance strategies into practice, but then I realized that would also flood my home just a couple of kilometres down the road. So I drove home wondering just how long we’ve got before the world’s water wars kick off.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.