Why Thai farmers are launching homemade rockets powered by gunpowder

With the domestic rocket mounted high above them, the crew pauses for a moment of quiet reflection at the base of the launcher. Then they scramble.

“Ha, sii, saam, soong, nung…” a man’s voice comes through the loudspeaker, counting down from five. Soon, a thick cloud of smoke covers the dusty field, and the ground sinks as “secret” gunpowder compounds drive the colorful contraption high into the sky. An elated cheer breaks out; Spectators tracking the rocket’s direct ascent from the north are impressed.

“I love to watch them go,” says Brasart, 70, as he exchanges wads of cash as he bets on the edge of the danger zone. “The rockets [have] it became much bigger than when I was young.”

Across northeastern Thailand and parts of Laos, thousands of these 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 rocket for launch – Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

The participants prepare to launch a homemade rocket during the The participants prepare to launch a homemade rocket during the

Organizers prepare one of the frames that will hold rockets – Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

But the ancient Buddhist festival is also a tribute to the Gods; a reminder of merit to deliver an abundant monsoon season to farmers’ fields.

And that rain was never needed again.

“This year saw the lowest total rainfall on record, with almost no rainfall in February and March,” says Dr. Theepakorn Jithitikulchai, an economist and climate researcher at Thammasat University in Bangkok. “As of April 28, the national cumulative rainfall is 74 percent lower than the [average]… compared to the last thirty years.”

Temperatures are also soaring, with southeast Asia engulfed in an unprecedented heat wave that has closed schools and strained power grids. In Thailand, where temperatures exceed 43C in 16 provinces, a record 61 heat-related deaths were reported.

“Thailand’s farmers are at the forefront of climate change, with ‘global boiling point’ contributing significantly to extreme weather,” says Dr Jithitikulchai. “Thailand’s climate is changing – rising temperatures and declining precipitation over the last few decades are clear trends.”

The northeastern region of Isaan is among the worst affected, he says. And here in Yasothon, a small city where the most famous and perhaps the most terrifying rocket festival is held, farmers are feeling it a lot.

“It’s been very dry and very hot for the last few years, and this year the rain is supposed to come even later,” says Nab, watching as a crew scrambles up the rickety starter, a ladder to fix a rocket. “I’m very concerned, the biggest issue for people around here is – 80 per cent of the population here is a farmer.”

The 19-year-old man, whose family has been cultivating the fields here for generations, is particularly concerned about his rice paddy.

Not only is the crop sensitive to high temperatures (one study found that every 1C spike in average nighttime temperatures corresponds to a 10 percent yield loss), but it also requires huge amounts of water. On average, it takes 2,500 liters of water to grow 1kg of rice.

“We are able to grow much less rice than we used to,” says Nab. “I’m 50/50 about which [the festival] The God of Rain really helps us. But a lot of people believe it will come… If the rain still doesn’t come, I guess 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 domestic rocket launches during the Spectators watch domestic rocket launches during the

Spectators relax as they watch the rocket launches – Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Academics say that while shifting rainfall and higher temperatures are being driven by climate change – a study on Wednesday found scorching April temperatures were 45 times more likely due to global warming – the latest El Niño has made matters worse. .

The weather phenomenon, which occurs every three to seven years, is triggered by the unusual warming of the Pacific Ocean. The impacts vary around the world but in Asia, it’s about falling rainfall and rising temperatures.

But there could be some relief for Thai farmers later this year, says Beau Damen, a climate change officer at the Food and Agriculture Office in Bangkok.

“Right now we’re looking at a possible transition period out of El Niño, and it looks like we’ll be transitioning right into La Niña,” he says. “Normally, in this part of the world, that would be positive in terms of rainfall.”

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

Still, unless global warming is curbed, life will only get more challenging for Thai farmers and their counterparts across southeast Asia, says Dr. Witsanu Attavanich, an environmental economist at Kasetsart University in Bangkok.

“These heat waves are going to get worse… [and] the Thai agricultural sector is expected to suffer more damage in the future,” he says, adding that the farmers he surveyed have already seen a 30 to 50 percent reduction in rice yields. This is not the only crop that has been hit.

“Extreme heat has reduced the yield of aromatic coconuts,” says Dr Attavanich. “Farmers who grow durian, the high-value crop, are also struggling with the water shortage.”

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

The paper, to be published in the journal Climate Change but seen by the Telegraph, calls on farmers to start diversifying their crops to protect against the effects of extreme heat. But as it is, single crop agriculture is actually increasing in Thailand, and the percentage of irrigated farms fell from 25 percent in 2007-2016, to 19 percent in 2020.

“It doesn’t look very positive,” says Dr Jithitikulchai. “These trends indicate a possible shift towards 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

An elephant visits spectators as they eat lunch during the An elephant visits spectators as they eat lunch during the

There was an elephant in the audience – Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Back in Yasothon, both the Rain God and Prince Buaille, main figures from the legends that created the festival, are mentioned everywhere. Meanwhile rockets and flares soar into the sky as spectators (including, from somewhere, an elephant) huddle under gazebos and umbrellas to seek refuge from the scorching temperatures; some even dive into muddy waterholes to cool off.

At the end of the weekend, the winning rockets – those who spent the most time in the air, from take-off to the moment they land (we hope in a field, the Telegraph is sure that the angle of the carefully constructed launcher to avoid the city ) – will be selected.

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

“We do it to encourage rain, many people still believe in it,” he says. “So it has to be done, every year. We must set out the rockets, or the rain will surely not come.”

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