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Why Thai farmers are launching gunpowder propelled homemade rockets

In World
May 15, 2024

With the homemade rocket strapped in place high above them, the crew pause for a moment of quiet reflection at the base of the launcher. Then they scramble.

“Ha, sii, saam, soong, nung…” a man’s voice booms through the loudspeaker, counting down from five. Soon, a thick cloud of smoke has enveloped the dusty field, the ground rumbling as a “top secret” gunpowder concoction propels the colourful contraption high into the sky. Elated cheers break out; spectators tracking the rocket’s straight ascent north are impressed.

“I love watching them set off,” says Brasart, 70, exchanging wads of cash as he bets at the edge of the danger zone. “The rockets [have] got so much bigger than when I was young.”

Across north eastern 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 stuffed with explosives.

Participants prepare their home-made rockets for launchduring the "Bun Bang Fai" rocket festival on May 12, 2024 in Yasothon, Thailand

Participants prepare their home-made rockets for launch – Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Participants prepare to launch a home-made rocket during the "Bun Bang Fai" rocket festival on May 12, 2024 in Yasothon, Thailand

Organisers prepare one of the frames that rockets will attach to – Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

But the ancient Buddhist festival is also a homage to the Gods; a merit-making reminder to deliver a plentiful monsoon season for farmer’s fields.

And that rain has never been needed more.

“This year has seen the lowest total rainfall 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, the national cumulative rainfall is 74 per cent lower than the [average]… compared to the past three decades.”

Temperatures have also been scorching, with southeast Asia enveloped in an unprecedented heat wave that’s closed schools and strained power grids. In Thailand, where temperatures have surpassed 43C in 16 provinces, a record of 61 heat-related fatalities have been reported.

“Thailand’s farmers are on the frontlines of climate change, with ‘global boiling’ intensifying extreme weather,” says Dr Jithitikulchai. “Thailand’s climate is changing – rising temperatures and declining precipitation are evident trends over the past few decades.”

The north eastern region of Isaan is among the worst hit, he adds. And here in Yasothon, a small city home to perhaps the most famous and raucous rocket festival, farmers are feeling the pinch.

“It’s been very dry and very hot the last couple of years, and this year the rain is meant to come even later,” says Nab, watching as a crew scramble up the rickety, laddered launcher to set up their rocket. “I’m very worried, it’s the biggest issue for people around here – 80 per cent of the population here is a farmer.”

The 19-year-old, whose family have been toiling fields here for generations, is especially concerned about his rice paddy.

The crop is not only sensitive to high temperatures (one study has found every 1C spike in average night-time temperatures corresponds to a 10 per cent yield loss), but also needs huge amounts of water. On average, it takes 2,500 litres of water to grow 1kg of rice.

“We’re able to grow way less rice than we used to,” Nab says. “I’m 50/50 about whether [the festival] really makes the God of Rain help us. But many people believe it will… If the rain still doesn’t come, then I think I will have to do something else.”

Participants pray before launching a home-made rocket into the sky during the "Bun Bang Fai" rocket festival

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

Spectators watch home-made rocket launches during the "Bun Bang Fai" rocket festival on May 12, 2024 in Yasothon, Thailand

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

Academics say that although shifting rainfall and higher temperatures have been driven by climate change – a study on Wednesday found April’s scorching temperatures were 45 times more likely because of global warming – the scenario has been worsened by the latest El Niño.

The weather phenomenon, which occurs every three to seven years, is triggered by an unusual warming of the Pacific Ocean. The impacts vary globally but in Asia, it is associated with reduced rainfall and soaring temperatures.

Yet 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.

“At the moment we’re looking at a potential transition period out of El Niño, and it increasingly looks like we might be transitioning directly 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 Centre, there’s a 69 per cent chance that this could develop between July and September.

Still, unless global heating is curbed, life is only going to 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 will get worse… [and] it is expected that Thailand’s agricultural sector will suffer more damage in the future,” he says, adding that the farmers he’s surveyed have already seen rice yields drop by 30 to 50 per cent. This is not the only affected crop.

“The yield of aromatic coconuts has decreased due to extreme heat,” says Dr Attavanich. “Farmers who grow durian, the high value crop, also struggle with the shortage of water.”

According to an upcoming study by Dr Attavanich, Dr Jithitikulchai and their colleagues, overall agricultural production in Thailand could drop by 10 per cent for every one percentage point rise above average annual temperatures.

The paper, set to be published in the journal Climatic Change but seen by the Telegraph, calls for farmers to start diversifying their crops to protect against the impacts of extreme heat. But as it stands, single crop agriculture is actually increasing in Thailand, while the proportion of irrigated farms dropped from 25 per cent in 2007-2016, to 19 per cent in 2020.

“It does not look very promising,” says Dr Jithitikulchai. “These trends suggest a potential shift towards less sustainable agricultural practices… we need a more sustainable future.”

Brasart, 70, poses for a portrait in front of the rocket launching platforms during the "Bun Bang Fai" rocket festival

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

Spectators are visited by an elephant while eating lunch during the "Bun Bang Fai" rocket festival on May 12, 2024 in Yasothon, Thailand

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

Back in Yasothon, mentions of both the God of Rain and the Toad Prince, key figures from the legends that spawned the festival, are 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 water holes to cool off.

At the end of the weekend, the winning rockets – those who spent the most time airborne, from take off to the moment they land (hopefully in a field, the Telegraph is assured the angle of the launcher has been carefully constructed to avoid the city) – will be picked.

“Over 20 years ago, some people got injured, but now people are much safer,” says Brasart, donned in a wide-brimmed rattan hat and aviator sunglasses. “I like this event more than any other festival each year.

“We do it to encourage the rain, many people still believe in this,” he adds. “So it’s a must do, every year. We have to set off the rockets, or the rain definitely won’t come.”

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