Food Security for the Karen Hilltribes in Thailand

By Kira Day, Give2Asia Programs Intern

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As darkened clouds signal the arrival of “April Showers,” we dust off our rubber boots, unwieldy umbrellas, and – for the worst days – a waxed jacket from the closet corner. We gripe about worsened commutes, expressing contempt for traffic congestion and pesky puddles that drench our pant legs. For Northern Thailand’s Karen people, however, the rain is more than a nuisance; it threatens their livelihoods.

Monsoon season arrives in villages across northwest Thailand each July, bringing with it the risk of extreme flooding. Rather than providing necessary irrigation in the aftermath of increasingly severe droughts, massive water flows destroy fragile irrigation systems. These structures, often made of wood or bamboo, support a community of subsistence farmers whose production depends largely on unpredictable weather. The susceptibility of these irrigation systems to extreme weather means that Karen food production routinely meets just 40% of the population’s need. Food shortages result in malnutrition, and ultimately displacement, as children and young adults migrate to cities to support their families.

To confront the issue of food security, the Karen Hilltribes Trust (KHT) invests in building durable and flood-resistant dams, which provide communities with reliable water sources year-round. Previous KHT irrigation projects have led to 5-fold increases in rice production yields, decreased reliance on harmful slash-and-burn methods, and income generation from the sale of surplus crops. Most importantly, these dams are built to last over 10 years, without the need for repairs. Rain becomes a resource rather than a menace in these project communities.

Particular villages, such as Ban Nong Haeng, have an urgent need for these projects. Recent floods have left the area without any form of flood protection. With the wet season on the horizon, the community is vulnerable to having their crops – and homes – destroyed entirely. KHT hopes to undertake the project by June 1st, working expediently to preempt the impending storms.

Karen Hilltribes Trust embodies the ethos of Give2Asia: local knowledge counts. The organization consults village leaders to ensure that the infrastructure will meet community needs – a small yet fundamental step for effective development. What’s more is KHT’s commitment to sustainability. By involving local villagers in the construction, they build the capacity for long-term impact. Community members gain the skills to repair or replicate the dams, and see first-hand the value of their work.

With 64% of the Karen province Mae Hong Song living below the Global Poverty Line – just $1.90 per day – there is much work to be done. Poverty, health, and education are just a few of the issues that need to be confronted. The KHT irrigation projects, however, come with a greater sense of urgency. Delaying construction leaves an entire community defenseless. Their food security, safety, and ultimately lives remain at the mercy of nature.

To contribute to Karen Hilltribes Trust, visit Give2Asia’s donation site here.