In The News

Apprehension and Criticism of Government Rise as Floods Spread in Thailand

October 19, 2011

For the last several days, the water level in Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River has been rising in virtual synch with the escalating worry that grips a city bisected by this great river and whose neighborhoods are crisscrossed by dozens of canals, or klongs. This growing concern drew me to the Chao Phraya, whose familiar defined banks had vanished beneath a broad expanse of water that lapped at the window frames of traditional wooden houses that ordinarily sit some distance from the river. Sunlight danced across the swollen river, the quiet scene otherwise offering little clue that communities a few kilometers upriver were contending with the most severe flooding in half a century.

Thailand floods

An aerial view over flooded Lokayasuttharam Buddhist temple in in Ayutthaya province. The situation in Bangkok's adjacent provinces has serious implications for the capital, with the Chao Phraya and other river systems that pass through and around the crowded city of 9 million serving as the only natural drainage course for the accumulated floodwaters. Photo: Associated Press

The 2011 monsoon and cyclone season has been particularly severe, prompting a combination of flooding and landslide risks in several Southeast Asian countries. Thailand and Cambodia have been especially hard hit. In Thailand, the flooding has submerged 27 provinces, with the death toll exceeding 300 and the economic consequences unfathomable. Three months of heavy rains have placed the lowlands of Ayutthaya, Nakhonsawan, and other provinces north of Bangkok at highest risk. Satellite images of the thousands of acres of flooded farmlands and industrial estates could easily be mistaken for a vast lake. The situation in these adjacent provinces has implications for the capital, with the Chao Phraya and other river systems that pass through and around the crowded city of 9 million serving as the only natural drainage course for the accumulated floodwaters. The situation is exacerbated by a seasonal tidal effect that resists the natural flow of water from the Chao Phraya to the Gulf of Thailand, which is expected to peak this week.

For residents of Bangkok, apprehension has increased as a result of mercurial media reporting that one day announces that the capital is in imminent danger of flooding, the next day assures that the greatest risk has passed, then reverts to grim predications a day later. Having initially gone to great length to assure the public that adequate measures were in place to protect greater Bangkok, the national government and Bangkok Metropolitan Administration have ultimately acknowledged that they can neither predict nor stem the scale or duration of flooding in the capital if the sandbag embankments that are being hurriedly constructed by government agencies and volunteers continue to fail. Businesses, public offices, and residential neighborhoods have done what they can in the circumstances, sandbagging buildings, shifting commercial inventories, motor vehicles, and personal possessions to higher ground, and stockpiling bottled water, dry goods, and other essentials. Social networking mechanisms have played a critical role in the communication and information-sharing efforts of government agencies and private coordinating bodies.

Regardless of the extent to which Bangkok is affected over the next few days, the consequences of severe flooding in the adjacent provinces are disastrous. The Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation has reported that over 8 million people have been affected by floods and mudslides, and that several million acres of agricultural land have been inundated, with severe implications for rice production. In addition to the losses borne by those dependent on the agricultural economy, industrial wage earners are profoundly affected. Floodwaters have breached six major industrial estates north of Bangkok and flooded over 10,000 factories in 17 provinces. Estimates project that more than 400,000 workers could be out of work for two to three months before the floodwaters recede and factories resume operations. The Ministry of Labor has estimated that thousands more could be affected as suspended production disrupts broader supply chains. The consequences of large-scale economic disruption are enormous, with an average of five family members dependent on each individual factory worker. The National Economic and Social Development Board has projected that the total economic cost of the emergency could top $7 billion.

National and municipal government agencies, the private sector, and civil society have responded to the escalating crisis with a combination of measures to contain the flooding, provide emergency relief to affected communities, minimize the economic consequences, and expedite recovery efforts. Among them, the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has borne the brunt of criticism for failing to act sooner; for inconsistency and imprecision in communications; and for thus far declining to declare a state of emergency and mobilize military units that some observers suggest might actually prefer to remain in barracks and thereby increase the pressure on government. Faced with a nightmare political challenge of this kind, what options are open to the three-month-old government? Does it take minimal action on the chance that Bangkok will be spared, seize full credit if the emergency passes with minimal damage or disruption, and bask in public approval? Point blame at the previous government for failing to anticipate an emergency of this scale during its term in office? Or take every possible action in the knowledge that no combination or scale of efforts will deflect responsibility if Bangkok floods? If the stark photo images and television news footage of anxious residents evacuating their homes and businesses in nearby communities as barriers yield to the torrent of floodwater are any guide, the latter course is the only choice and the right one.

Thailand floods

Residents of a Bangkok suburb stand behind sandbags placed along the rising Chao Phraya River. The flooding has submerged 27 provinces so far. Photo by flickr user Philip Roeland.

Whatever the outcome of the present crisis, political leaders and public authorities will do well to draw lessons from the experience. While the 2011 floods are exceptional in scale, projected climate change trends suggest that emergencies of this kind are bound to occur more frequently in years to come – at the very least until broader mitigation efforts take effect. This calls for enhancement of a combination of preventive and relief measures, including enhanced weather monitoring and satellite imaging, computer modeling of flooding patterns and intervention options, more efficient response measures, improved communications, creative public-private partnership in relief efforts, and reliable cost projections and budget allocations. In particular, technical specialists have insisted that the perfect storm of disposing conditions has been exacerbated by lack of foresight and responsibility on the part of government, public authorities, and the private sector in managing land and water resources. The press for profit-taking urban development has compromised natural drainage routes and placed an impossible burden on the rivers and canals of Bangkok and adjacent provinces.

These and other long-term emergency response and governance reform measures lie ahead. For the moment, relief efforts mount in affected areas, sandbags are stacked higher, and Bangkok braces for the worst.

In response to the flooding throughout Thailand, The Asia Foundation’s partner organization, Give2Asia, has launched a Thailand Flood Relief Fund to aid in relief efforts. Read more.

Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand. He can be reached at kmcquay@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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