In The News

Thailand’s Students Return to Classrooms, But Rebuilding Remains a Challenge

December 14, 2011

The flooding that submerged one-third of Thailand this year was the worst the country had seen in 50 years. Sixty-five provinces and over 4 million people have been affected, tens of thousands have lost jobs, and nearly 700 were killed. Nine provinces remain underwater. Thailand’s National Economic and Social Development Board slashed its projected 2011 GDP to 1.5, down from its pre-flood projection of as much as 4 percent. The World Bank estimates that rehabilitation costs could reach $25 billion.

Primary and secondary schools were not spared from the destruction. A total of 2,237 schools were destroyed or damaged. According to the Ministry of Education, repairs will cost an estimated $44.2 million.

Flooded schools in Thailand

Floodwaters in Thailand damaged thousands of schools, including Angthong Temple Nursery School above, located on the shore of the Chao Phraya River north of Bangkok. Photo: Angthong Temple Nursery School.

Principals from four of the worst affected areas that I visited recently said students missed 25 or more class days on average, which were made up by staying an hour longer each day and, in some cases, coming in on Saturdays. Also, because their workplaces were flood-damaged, many parents could not work for a month or two, dramatically reducing household income and their ability to provide for their families. Even though tuition, lunch, and uniforms at public schools are free, students must pay for courses not required by the Ministry of Education. Ang Thong Nursery, located on the shore of the Chao Phraya River north of Bangkok, for example, offers computer classes and English and Chinese instruction with foreign teachers, totaling $33 per year. These skills are critical to the future success in Thailand’s highly populated and competitive job market but were disrupted due to the flood damage.

Thankfully, in the schools that I visited, very few students have had to drop out of school completely due to financial hardship, as schools are trying to be flexible and accommodating in order to keep students in classrooms. Still, a long road to rebuilding devastated schools and libraries lies ahead. The Ministry of Education announced recently that the priority right now is to rebuild basic infrastructure, followed by replacing computers and library books. I spoke recently with principals from four schools in a few of the hardest hit areas, including Ayudhaya – a UNESCO World Heritage site and Thailand’s temple-studded former capital – and its neighboring province, Ang Thong. Despite some rebuilding efforts that are just beginning, they said their rehabilitation needs remain extensive, and each school is dependent on the central government for the funds needed for repairs, which range from $11,700 to $233,000.

At Wat (temple) Tal Ched Chor School in Ang Thong, waters rose to nearly nine feet, and stayed for over two months. “We’re next to the Chao Phraya River. The cement dike upstream broke at about 9 p.m., and by daybreak, water was over one meter high,” said the school’s director Suthep Sangvises. At nearby Wat Ang Thong Nursery School, the water was waist-high within an hour after the dike broke. All 190 primary school students, as well as the computers and ceiling fans at Wat Tal Ched Chor were relocated in time, but more than 100 windows still need to be repaired and replaced, as do most of the chairs and desks. Many schools were submerged for weeks and some for over a month.

Flood-damaged schools in Thailand

One hour after the cement dike upstream broke, the water was already waist-high at Wat Ang Thong Nursery School. Photo credit: Angthong Temple Nursery School.

Sathinee Pong-Aksorn, the director of a private, K-11 school in Ayudhaya, told me that the flooding had ruined about 200 of its 1,000 library books – a significant loss, she said. Wat Ang Thong Nursery School was able to save its library books, as its library is on the second floor. However, they were not able to save the books that were stored on the bookshelves in each classroom in time.

Books for Thailand Foundation, the distribution arm for The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program in Thailand, is helping to rehabilitate flood-damaged libraries. In conjunction with the Annika Linden Foundation and The Nation Group (a Thai multimedia company), we are donating 145 titles of English- and Thai-language books to 126 schools in January. We’re also joining with the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand’s Adopt-a-School program to donate books on a gradual basis, starting now with 30 titles for secondary schools and following up with primary school books when our inventory is replenished in February 2012. We’re also working with the Ministry of Education to gradually replenish the libraries of all 2,093 primary and secondary schools damaged by the flood. Several universities were also damaged, affecting 10,000 students, and we’re currently assessing how we can help rebuild their libraries as well.

As a nation, Thailand’s efforts are now focused on recovering and rebuilding – not only its buildings, but, more importantly, the livelihoods of its citizens. The challenge now is for Thais to cherish the cohesiveness with which they came together to overcome the devastation from the flooding and apply that unity to solving the gulfs which divide us. In order to achieve this, education and a thirst for knowledge among our students will continue to be of paramount importance.

*Note, the figure for schools damaged in the floods has been changed from the original version.

Burin Kantabutra is the vice chairman of Books for Thailand Foundation. He can be reached at books4thailand@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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