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Why Thai farmers are launching homemade rockets powered by gunpowder

With the homemade rocket strapped above them, the crew stops for a moment of quiet reflection at the launcher base. Then they jostle each other.

“Ha, sii, saam, soong, nung…” a man’s voice echoes over the loudspeaker, counting down from five. Soon, a thick cloud of smoke enveloped the dusty field, the ground rumbling as a concoction of “top secret” gunpowder propelled the colorful craft high into the sky. Enthusiastic cheers break out; the spectators who follow the direct rise of the rocket towards the north are impressed.

“I love seeing them go,” says Brasart, 70, exchanging wads of cash while betting on the edge of the danger zone. “Rockets have become much bigger than when I was young.”

Across northeastern Thailand and parts of Laos, thousands of them will be set off this month as the region celebrates Bun Bang Fai with parades, parties – and PVC rockets filled with ‘explosives.

Participants prepare their homemade rockets for launch during the Participants prepare their homemade rockets for launch during the

Participants prepare their homemade rockets for launch – Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Participants prepare to launch a homemade rocket during the Participants prepare to launch a homemade rocket during the

Organizers prepare one of the frames to which the rockets will be attached – Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

But the ancient Buddhist festival is also a tribute to the gods; a worthy reminder to deliver a bountiful monsoon season for farmers’ fields.

And this rain has never been more necessary.

“This year’s rainfall totals were the lowest on record, with almost no rain in February and March,” says Dr Theepakorn Jithitikulchai, an economist and climate researcher at Thammasat University in Bangkok. “As of April 28, national cumulative precipitation is 74 percent below (average)… compared to the past three decades.”

Temperatures have also been scorching, with Southeast Asia plunged into an unprecedented heatwave that has closed schools and strained power grids. In Thailand, where temperatures exceeded 43°C in 16 provinces, a record 61 heat-related deaths were reported.

“Thai farmers are on the front lines of climate change, with a ‘global boil’ intensifying extreme weather,” says Dr Jithitikulchai. “Thailand’s climate is changing: rising temperatures and decreasing precipitation are evident trends over the past decades. »

The northeastern region of Isaan is among the most affected, he adds. And here in Yasothon, a small town home to perhaps the most famous and loudest rocket festival, farmers are feeling the effects.

“It’s been very dry and very hot the last two years, and this year the rain is supposed to come even later,” says Neb, watching the crew climb onto the rickety launcher and ladders to install their rocket. “I’m very worried, this is the biggest problem for the people here: 80 percent of the population here are farmers.”

This 19-year-old young man, whose family has worked here for generations, is particularly concerned about his rice field.

Not only is this crop sensitive to high temperatures (one study showed that every 1°C increase in average nighttime temperatures corresponds to a 10% yield loss), but it also requires enormous amounts of water. On average, it takes 2,500 liters of water to grow 1 kg of rice.

“We are able to grow much less rice than before,” explains Nab. “I’m 50/50 on whether (the festival) really makes the Rain God help us. But a lot of people think it will… If the rain still doesn’t fall, I think I’ll have to do something else.

Participants pray before launching a homemade rocket into the sky during the Participants pray before launching a homemade rocket into the sky during the

Participants pray for rain before launching a homemade rocket into the sky during the Bun Bang Fai rocket festival – Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Spectators watch homemade rocket launches during the Spectators watch homemade rocket launches during the

Spectators relax while watching rocket launches – Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Academics say that although climate change has led to changes in precipitation and higher temperatures – a study published Wednesday found that April’s scorching temperatures were 45 times more likely due to global warming – the scenario has been made worse by the latest El Niño phenomenon.

This weather phenomenon, which occurs every three to seven years, is triggered by an unusual warming of the Pacific Ocean. Impacts vary globally, but in Asia they are associated with reduced precipitation and increased temperatures.

Still, Thai farmers could see some relief later this year, said Beau Damen, head of climate change at the Food and Agriculture Bureau in Bangkok.

“Right now, we’re looking at a potential transition period out of El Niño, and it’s looking more and more like we could go straight into La Niña,” he says. “Normally in this part of the world it would be positive in terms of precipitation.”

According to the latest forecasts from the US Climate Prediction Center, there is a 69 percent chance of this happening between July and September.

Yet unless global warming is curbed, life will only become more difficult for Thai farmers and their counterparts in Southeast Asia, says Dr Witsanu Attavanich, an environmental economist at the Kasetsart University, Bangkok.

“These heatwaves will get worse… (and) Thailand’s agricultural sector is expected to suffer more damage in the future,” he says, adding that farmers he interviewed have already seen rice yields fall by 30 to 50 percent. This is not the only crop affected.

“The yield of aromatic coconuts decreased due to extreme heat,” says Dr. Attavanich. “Farmers growing durian, a high-value crop, also face water shortage. »

According to a forthcoming study by Dr. Attavanich, Dr. Jithitikulchai and their colleagues, overall agricultural production in Thailand could fall by 10 percent for every percentage point increase above average annual temperatures.

The article, due to be published in the journal Climatic Change but seen by the Telegraph, calls on farmers to start diversifying their crops to protect against the impacts of extreme heat. But currently, monoculture farming is actually increasing in Thailand, while the proportion of irrigated farms has fallen from 25 percent in 2007-2016 to 19 percent in 2020.

“It doesn’t look very promising,” says Dr. Jithitikulchai. “These trends suggest a potential shift toward less sustainable agricultural practices…we need a more sustainable future.” »

Brasart, 70, poses for a portrait in front of the rocket launch platforms during the Brasart, 70, poses for a portrait in front of the rocket launch platforms during the

Bun Bang Fai is 70-year-old Brasart’s favorite festival of the year – Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Spectators are visited by an elephant while eating lunch during the Spectators are visited by an elephant while eating lunch during the

An elephant was among the spectators – Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Back in Yasothon, mentions of the Rain God and the Toad Prince, key figures in the legends that gave birth to the festival, are omnipresent. Meanwhile, rockets and flares soar into the sky while spectators (including, from somewhere, an elephant) huddle under gazebos and umbrellas for shelter from the scorching temperatures; some even dive into muddy water holes to cool off.

At the end of the weekend, the winning rockets – those which spent the most time in flight, from takeoff to landing (in a field, hopefully, the Telegraph assures that the angle of the launcher has been carefully constructed to avoid the city). ) – will be chosen.

“More than 20 years ago, some people were injured, but now people are much safer,” says Brasart, wearing a wide-brimmed rattan hat and aviator sunglasses. “I love this event more than any other festival every year.

“We do it to encourage rain, a lot of people still believe in it,” he adds. “So it’s a must every year. We have to get the rockets off the ground, otherwise the rain definitely won’t come.”

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