Thailand’s floods … aftermath

The floods are over. We have lived through Thailand’s worst floods in almost half a century. All of Oct and Nov we waited tensely for the floods to descend on our home on Bangkok. We bought and stocked up on provisions, moved things to the 2nd floor, sealed the house and moved to Rawin’s grandparents on 22 Oct. A few days later, the floods peaked and hit the outlying areas of Bangkok. In Nov, our house and surrounding areas were considered at risk.

After weeks of tense waiting, by mid-November, the waters finally came around and flooded the nearby roads and some of the streets of our house in Bangkok. It was perversely a relief to know that the waters were finally all around us. Our house remained dry. We have been more fortunate than most people in central Thailand and Bangkok. We are totally grateful for this.

Now the floodwaters have finally decreased in many areas and people have been returning to their homes and fields to assess and repair the damage and try to return their lives to some semblance of normalcy.

Now, a look at what happened. Granted Bangkok and most of the central Thailand provinces that form a large floodplain do receive northern run-offs every year. As an ecological activist pointed out recently in a detailed presentation in Chiang Mai, floods happen every year. A number of provinces in the lower north and central Thailand suffer damage to crops, orchards and rice fields as well as homes and property. On occasion, some people are also swept away by fast-flowing rivers and lives are lost. And every year, the government doles out compensation to farmers and families. And life goes on … until the next year’s floods.

So in 2011 what was different? At least three major factors. One, the sheer volume of water was a lot higher than in the previous years. Two, this was because of a lot more rain: the 2nd monsoon rains usually lasts for several weeks in July/Aug but this year continued all throughout Sept aided by a couple of tropical storms. Last, the large volume of water did not all come from the rains, but 4 dams in the lower northern region stored then released their “excess storage” water around the same time that the northern run-off was reaching the central plains.

In a rare moment of political candour, the Agriculture Minister admitted that he had ordered the dams in the lower north to store water despite being in “excess” of capacity for irrigating rice fields in the central plains. When the rains did not stop, the 4 dams were forced to release a large volume of water suddenly and very late in Sept, rather than releasing smaller volumes starting from Aug, making the entire situation far worse than it could have been.

Then when the flood situation worsened, there came the complete and gross mismanagement of the disaster relief operations mainly featuring misleading information (and cover-up of the extent of flooding) and administrative quarrels and cock-ups.

Infighting among bureaucracies, and between the ruling Pheu Thai Party government’s Ministers and the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (headed by an elected Governor from the opposition Democrat Party) – Petty quarrels continued on whether a letter had reached the relevant minister’s office or not, or about borders and administrative jurisdictions.

The lack of up-to-date information on the volume and timing of the flood waters and what often seemed to be a “people will cope with it as best as they can” attitude – Sometimes communities were assured they were completely safe, then suddenly given orders to “evacuate within 2-3 hours”.

Misleading official proclamations (more often soundbites) that only made situations worse – For instance the Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Surasawadi (who gave us the infamous Night Safari and the Salween timber logging scandals) telling a press conference not to worry, he will use 1,000 speedboats to propel the floods into the sea through the Chao Phraya River.

But then at least he was around albeit either being really useless or at best providing tragi-comic relief. But some other politicians went completely missing from the action not giving a rat’s arse whether the rest of the country was drowning or not. Most notable was deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung (he later popped up along with a secret decree to sneak the fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra back to Thailand), who disappeared from the public eye for almost the entire month of October when the flood disaster was at its peak.

Flood relief was not always reaching everywhere and everyone on time, leaving large areas of people waiting and waiting – Many supply trucks were hastily covered in banners and signs by opportunistic politicians more interested in advertising their names and getting political mileage out of relief efforts.

Among these watery ruins, bickering and political delinquency, the newly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ran around in boats and helicopters, giving out relief packages, holding meetings and trying to secure some vestige of leadership but often giving the impression of someone not fully able to cope.

But there were also some very good things. The Thai media has been doing a great job, especially television, taking up the slack and providing updated information and analysis. Many TV reporters went everywhere, working from 6 am to midnight, getting interviews, doing analysis back at the studio, providing maps and data, taking calls from people who were stranded without food or water, and TV channels even rushing their own relief supplies to many areas. Many newspaper reporters wrote heart-wrenching stories about farmers and communities, and a few even about their own experiences in evacuating from their flooded home.

And of course, many newspaper cartoonists had a great time.

For once, the Thai army was a big help to people rather than relying on its usual method of staging coups or shooting civilians. The army’s large cadre of young soldiers often waded neck-deep in waters pulling and pushing boatloads of people, distributing supplies using trucks and helicopters and providing technical know-how in building sandbag barriers.

Then there were the hundreds of people helping each other, friends and neighbours and students and many others who took boats and distributed food and water or volunteered to put up sandbags or repair flood barriers through the night.

So what happens now? The clean-up after the flood waters has begun.

And the clean-up in terms of governance and accountability? Well, a few things that could take place (in a perfect world probably) where decision-makers would show or take accountability for their mistakes, lessons would be learned, and preparations put in for the next potential natural disaster.

At least one official, the Agriculture Minister, would be asked to resign. Or even better, is it possible to charge him with criminal negligence causing several billion baht damage to crops, industry and property, and culpable homicide for the loss of more than 500 lives in the floods? The many politicians who went missing in what was arguably one of the worst flooding disasters in Thailand’s recent history would have to explain where they were and why they did not help, and be penalised for their truancy.

A complete stock-taking of dam operations would begin, especially their water storage and release plans, and how these decisions are now made given that the period and duration of the monsoon rains are not as predictable as before.

Another stock-taking would begin of the infrastructure development, both past and planned, especially construction of large industrial estates that are situated right in the flood plain channels and that have drained wetlands and swamps, and blocked canals and natural river run-offs.

Also a closer look at what works and doesn’t (and why) in disaster prevention and mitigation, and how these can be improved.

None of this has happened so far.

No one is holding their breath.

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