Notes from the Field

Thailand’s 2011 Flood Crisis Reveals Potential of Technology and Social Media in Disaster Response

June 27, 2012

While Thais are accustomed and well adapted to the annual flood season, the 2011 flooding crisis was the worst in five decades and caught the entire nation off guard.  The floods actually began in northern Thailand in May and continued through mid-January, ultimately submerging 65 of Thailand’s 77 provinces, including seven major industrial estates north of Bangkok, leaving 815 dead and 13.6 million affected. The World Bank ranked the flood emergency as the world’s fourth most severe natural disaster in terms of economic consequences.

Many agree that what was missing from the country's emergency flood response and relief agenda and mechanisms was a clear and consistent source of flood information and a two-way communication system. Photo: Arpaporn Winijkulchai

The enormity of the crisis exposed the realities of Thailand’s still nascent model for responding to natural disasters.  While the mainstream media was focused on the national election held on July 3, 2011, most Thais, especially those living in Bangkok, were not even aware of the floods that had begun in the North. The new government assumed office at the same time that the floods began to spread to the central part of Thailand, which presented immediate challenges to effectively manage the escalating crisis. However, despite offers to help, the new administration showed minimal openness to accepting international assistance and to engage with civil society. However, the incident did reveal the power of citizens – in particular, their ability to build a cohesive response to the crisis using technology and social media.

Prior to the 2011 floods, the government, private sector, and universities had designed and installed many flood and landslide early warning systems to help monitor and warn of these natural disaster risks. From a technical perspective, Thailand has the technology to handle the floods. So, with this technology in place, why did the 2011 flood emergency response measures unfold in such a seemingly chaotic manner?  Many agree that what was missing from the country’s emergency flood response and relief agenda and mechanisms was a clear and consistent source of flood information and a two-way communication system.

In early October 2011, when 25 provinces were already submerged, the government set up a Flood Relief Operation Centre (FROC) located in the Don Mueang Airport, with the intention to work with all ministries related to immediately solve the flood problem. The Centre provided flood information to the public via phone hotlines and a website, ThaiFlood.com. The website was first developed in cooperation with the private sector and civil society, supported by a pool of IT experts and volunteers. After some time, ThaiFlood.com announced its separation from FROC due to conflicts involving information sharing and dissemination and cooperation between the two entities. Citizens were increasingly frustrated to find that official government flood bulletins and television reporting were constantly changing — reported to under control at some points, while at other points threatening to flood vast sections of Bangkok and its suburbs. Even though FROC eventually improved its website by providing more reliable and up-to-date information online, trust was undermined and the public was reluctant to believe the information that it provided. In contrast, Thai people instantly trusted the newly independent, volunteer run ThaiFlood.com, which served as a clearinghouse for information provided on the websites of other relevant ministries or departments and from independent postings to Facebook and Twitter.

In retrospect, the problem was that the government pursued these measures with limited engagement of civil society, civil volunteers, the private sector, and the non-profit sector. The government was limited in gathering urgent flood information and people could not wait for its help. In these circumstances, citizens and civil society organizations began to help themselves by recruiting volunteers to gather new information on households in affected communities, and confirming the information that they needed to secure proper assistance. For example The Asia Foundation supported the establishment by the Thai Labor Solidarity Committee (TLSC), made up of five Worker Flood Relief Centers in Bangkok and neighboring flood affected provinces. A TLSC volunteer group working at these five centers gathered information about laborers who visited the centers and people living nearby, and set up a donation section to distribute food supplies to people of the area, especially those who did not have a house registered in the location, such as migrant labors and workers who came from different provinces.

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter also played a key role during the flood emergency. University students from different institutions developed a Facebook page to provide information on ensuring the safety of pets in the flood crisis. Users could find more information about the flood situation from the flood-related professionals on their Facebook pages and Twitter posts directly, including Seree Supratid, a lecturer on disaster management of Rangsit University, and Sasin Chalermlarp, a Secretary-General of Seub Nakhasathien Foundation. The Asia Foundation’s youth partners in the Deep South also used Facebook to reconnect with their friends in other parts of Thailand.

In light of these coordination issues, it is undeniable that the government, civil society organizations, NGOs, citizen volunteer groups and private sector are keen to use technology. The government has a greater role ahead to lead these numerous stakeholders to assess and build the technology capacity of the country, if it is prepared and committed to assume it.

Arpaporn Winijkulchai is The Asia Foundation’s film and publication officer in Thailand. She can be reached at arpaporn@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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