In The News

As Thailand’s Floodwaters Recede, Agonies Surface

November 9, 2011

In the early weeks of October, people across Thailand experienced great heartache and even disbelief as they watched news coverage of rising floodwaters submerging several sizable industrial factories north of Bangkok one by one. During the first weeks of the flooding, we listened patiently to the hazy and tedious information announced by the government’s Flood Relief Operation Center (FROC).

Thailand flooding

The recent flooding in Thailand submerged four million acres, leaving over 500 dead and 9 million affected. Above, residents wade through deep water to get to their homes and shops. Photo by flickr user Philip Roeland.

Preoccupied by the government flood news, I lost focus on what to do next. At that point, I was primarily concerned over the likelihood that my house would be affected by the flood, how soon and for how long, and when I should plan to evacuate. Unfortunately, I found the information from the FROC and other sources not very helpful or specific and difficult to interpret. We heard assurances such as:

“At this moment several thousand million cubic meters of water are flowing down from the north; everyone should stay calm because your government is capable and ‘Ao Yoo’ (which translates as ‘we can handle it’). We will build sandbag walls and close major water sluice gates so that Bangkok is guaranteed to be safe.”

Just a few days later, all these assurances seemed to float away with the rising flood waters. News coverage showed metal roofs of houses and factories glinting in the sun, surrounded by expanses of flood water. We watched as thousands of people waded through flooded streets, while others floated in boats and on hand-made rafts or truck beds, carrying their essentials above their heads in search of dry refuge. Many held their beloved dogs and pets, pressing against waist, chest, and neck-high water levels. We watched this watery expanse churn through sewage drains and creep across road surfaces, growing bigger and higher. The experience was not so much frightening as nerve-wracking.  

Still lacking concrete information regarding the future status of my neighborhood, I started examining satellite aerial images online. From these, I learned that my house is located at the last point that the water would flow through in Bangkok before continuing to the ocean. In haste, I built small dykes at my front and back doors, stocked enough drinking water and food supplies for three weeks, and uncovered an electrical switch board for the first time since I moved into my house. When these steps failed to relieve my anxiety, I took the liberty of cramming all my family members and pets into my small city car and drove non-stop to my dry home in my native Korat province in the Northeast. Once there, I realized that perhaps this was a premature evacuation. I also felt a bit guilty for not staying in Bangkok to help those who were really suffering in the flood.

Though frustrating, I continued to examine the murky, and at times contradictory, statements from the political rivals – the Pheu Thai national government which managed FROC and the Democrat governor of Bangkok, to stay informed.

Serving as substitutes for conventional media, Facebook and other social networking sites were buzzing with more useful and essential information – much of which was provided by experts and environmental NGOs – regarding details on the direction of the flood waters, high flood risk areas, and shelter locations.

Now it is clear that many larger, critical questions remain, such as: What is the main cause of the flood incidence? Who triggered the problem? Who is to blame for letting the situation go downhill? What if food supplies, electricity, and piped water are cut off? Who will control the situation if people are so overwhelmed with stress that they begin to fight each other in the same way that wet and dry villages up-country had fought over the opening and closing of water sluice gates?

The longer that these questions go unanswered, the more Thais are likely to become disenchanted by the new administration’s ability to lead. Many people have concluded that neither the national government nor the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority were sufficient in their handling of flood management and victim support. Reports are circulating that people ignored government shelter services, with only a few hundred people taking refuge in shelters that could accommodate thousands. Alternatively, we are beginning to realize that people regarded the volunteers, non-profits, media, and soldiers as the real flood managers, who – in a moment of crisis – stepped in to fill a critical role that many felt our government was not.

In my view, this crisis and the issue of flood water management provides the impetus for a new round of political reform in Thailand. In the next few days, I expect that the flood waters are likely to reach my home. It may sound ridiculous that I should welcome this, but I feel the need to equally share this gloomy time with neighbors and friends who have already been affected. Despite the tragedy, perhaps in trade-off for all the damage and stress caused, the flood crisis could actually propel Thailand in the right direction.

Ruengrawee Pichaikul is The Asia Foundation’s senior program coordinator in Thailand. She can be reached at jieb@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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