Thailand’s Great Divide

AYUTTHAYA, Thailand —  “Yes, they’re protecting the industrial estates,” says a visibly upset Ammy Zear Khankeaw. “But what happens to us when the flood comes again? They must also protect us.”

It was only last year that Ammy, 37, and tens of thousands of other Ayutthaya residents had to flee their homes after incessant rains submerged almost 90 percent of this central province in deep, murky waters. Now she is hearing that while the government plans to build floodwalls in Ayutthaya, they would be around the industrial estates.

Chao Phraya River as seen from the Oriental Pier in Bang-rak, Bangkok
Chao Phraya River as seen from the Oriental Pier in Bang-rak, Bangkok
The Chao Phraya River in Ayutthaya, Thailand.
The Chao Phraya River in Ayutthaya, Thailand.
A pier vendor indicates the height of flood waters in Ayutthaya during the 2011 flood.
A pier vendor indicates the height of flood waters in Ayutthaya during the 2011 flood.
Bangkok Noi residents in the water gate project area in the background.
Bangkok Noi residents in the water gate project area in the background.
 
5.?The flood gate being constructed in Santichonsongkrue community in Bangkoknoi District  is expected to be finished in early 2013.
5.?The flood gate being constructed in Santichonsongkrue community in Bangkoknoi District is expected to be finished in early 2013.
A resident living along a canal connected to the Chao Phraya River points to the highest water level during the flood. Since then, they learned not to put their important belongings on the ground floor of their house, and instead moving these to higher locations.
A resident living along a canal connected to the Chao Phraya River points to the highest water level during the flood. Since then, they learned not to put their important belongings on the ground floor of their house, and instead moving these to higher locations.
7.?The Chao Praya River ias seen from the Bangkoknoi District. The white vessel on the left is the Angsana, which was used by His Majesty King Bhumibol, the Queen and Princess Sirindhorn during their 7 July 2012 royal family visit to flood-affected communities, and launching irrigation projects.
7.?The Chao Praya River ias seen from the Bangkoknoi District. The white vessel on the left is the Angsana, which was used by His Majesty King Bhumibol, the Queen and Princess Sirindhorn during their 7 July 2012 royal family visit to flood-affected communities, and launching irrigation projects.
The 1942 flood was the most severe in Bangkok, as seen here around the old parliament building (now the Ananda Throne hall, upper photo) and the Democracy monument (lower photo).
The 1942 flood was the most severe in Bangkok, as seen here around the old parliament building (now the Ananda Throne hall, upper photo) and the Democracy monument (lower photo).
 
The 2011 flood in Rangsit, Pathumthani province. (Photo credit: Chirapat Santipalakom)
The 2011 flood in Rangsit, Pathumthani province. (Photo credit: Chirapat Santipalakom)
Aftermath of the 2011 flood at a house of Thai journalist Uraiwan Norma in Pathumthani province.
Aftermath of the 2011 flood at a house of Thai journalist Uraiwan Norma in Pathumthani province.
Boats were widely used a taxis in Phatumthani during the 2011 flood.
Boats were widely used a taxis in Phatumthani during the 2011 flood.
Fishes like this weighling about 10 kilos can still be caught from the Chao Phraya river today.
Fishes like this weighling about 10 kilos can still be caught from the Chao Phraya river today.
 

It is news that is obviously not making her jump for joy. In fact, Ammy is wary and resentful of the flood control plan that looks aimed at protecting factories at the expense of the communities living around the industrial parks.  She fears that the floodwalls will only divert more water from the Chao Phraya River to the residential areas, which may suffer even worse than what they had experienced during last year’s massive overflow.

An island at the confluence of the Chao Phraya and the smaller Lopburi and Pa Sak Rivers that run through Thailand, Ayutthaya is no stranger to floods. Neither are the rest of the country’s central plains that lie north of the capital. Indeed, during the rainy season, the region experiences regular flooding. But last year’s floods ravaged Ayutthaya in particular and transformed its streets into rivers, submerging cars, motorbikes, shops, houses, factories, temples, and hospitals. Khankaew, who has lived here for the last 12 years, says she had never experienced flooding like that before. As the waters rose, she and her family took shelter in her sister’s house in a nearby province. It took almost two months, Khankaew says, before they could return home to Ayutthaya.

What came to be known as the ‘Great Flood’ – Thailand’s worst in the last half-century – began in the north in July 2011 and then traveled down to the central plains. By October, it had spread all the way to Bangkok and proceeded farther down south before finally receding in late December last year.

In all, two-thirds of the country were inundated, including many areas that were previously immune to floods. The historic flooding damaged rice and other crops, forced the closure of Bangkok’s second airport, Don Muang, and left the country’s tourism and manufacturing sectors in shambles for months. Estimates put the number of people who were directly affected by the Great Flood at more than 13 million, with damages amount to more than $42 billion. It also eventually led to the loss of at least 830 lives, with Ayutthaya among the provinces that suffered the most fatalities.

Business first?

Lying some 70 kms north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya is Thailand’s ancient capital, whose magnificent temples and stone Buddha statues are now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site and a major tourist draw. It is also an important industrial hub that earns millions of dollars for the country and keeps hundreds of thousands of Thais employed in factories. Indeed, news reports would later say that some 650,000 people were thrown temporarily out of work when the floods forced factories in Ayutthaya and other manufacturing hubs bordering  Bangkok to suspend operations for up to six months.

Weeks after the water receded, Honda Automotive (Thailand) in Ayutthaya began the painful act of destroying cars that were damaged by the floods, a move meant to assure the public that not one part of the damaged vehicles would be reused. The global supply chain for consumer electronic products like cameras and computers was also disrupted as a result of the floods, and even caused prices of hard drives to shoot up.

With the viability of the businesses at stake, it is no wonder why the government decided to build floodwalls around the industrial parks in Ayutthaya and elsewhere in Thailand as part of its overall National Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Plan for implementation between now and 2014. At the same time, it is a move that may be expected from a government that tried to keep the capital as dry as possible during the Great Flood — even at the risk of worsening the misery of those in the submerged central and northern parts of the country.

The truth is that even as the Great Flood put large swaths of agricultural, commercial and residential areas across the country underwater, it also exposed the capital’s vulnerabilities and the government’s unpreparedness to deal with a calamity of such magnitude. Months after the waters finally receded, many Thais remain unconvinced by the government’s ability to avoid a repeat of the disaster or at least lessen the impact of a similar event on the populace. Even some of those who appreciate the government’s efforts to safeguard the country’s economic interests now fear that this dogged focus may be leading policy makers to ignore approaches that may not be as ‘friendly’ to business or profits.

Monsoons, mismanagement, and meddling

The 2011 floods had been triggered by heavy monsoon rains and successive storms that pounded the northern and central parts of Thailand as early as July. According to Dr. Chusit Apirumanekul, a water expert at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC), the amount of rainfall during last year’s flood was about 40 percent more than that in the preceding years, causing the massive overflow from the Chao Phraya River.

What aggravated this was the fact that the rainy season started early, leaving the soil saturated and unable to absorb the additional volume of water that came afterwards. This, Chusit points out, may have been the main reason why the floods took so long to recede. He adds that the  average duration of two or three days of rain doubled last year, thus doubling the risk of flood.

Government officials themselves have said that runoff and the large amount of water from reservoirs proved too much for the waterways downstream to absorb and drain. But environmentalists and other observers have countered that the government’s mismanagement of water resources, specifically the timing of the release of water from dams, was equally to blame.

They also allege that meddling by politicians in the decision to release water from dams worsened the situation. Bolstering their suspicions are news reports that months after the crisis, Agriculture Minister Theera Wongsamut admitted to Parliament that he had asked officials to delay the release of water from the Bhumibol dam because rice farmers in the central plains were about to harvest.

Thai journalist Uraiwan Norma agrees with the observations that natural causes were not the only factors involved. The large volume of water spilling into Bangkok, for instance, can be traced to the blockage of flood ways that used to be the Chao Phraya’s natural water channel. “They (the government) already blocked the flood ways with infrastructures,” she says. “Where did they expect the water to go?”

The people of Ayutthaya, for their part, while pointing to rampant illegal logging as an aggravating factor, also blame the government’s inadequacy in addressing the perennial flood problem. They say they have yet to see an effective water-management system that can successfully control the water’s course during a flood. It’s no surprise then that many of them have greeted the industrial estate-floodwall plan with much wariness, if not complete dismay and disdain.

ADPC project associate Sunisa Soodrak meanwhile says that while the government has a water- management system, the fact that there are too many agencies involved in the program may be its undoing. She says there are 33 water-management organisations, each under a different agency or department, such as the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, Department of Drainage, and the Royal Irrigation Department.

These organisations, remarks Sunisa, may be implementing their own water management systems that probably overlap with other measures carried out by the other departments. In other words, it may be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.

Old problem, new premier

With the Great Flood, it could also have been a case of the head chef simply not yet quite up to the task. Having become Prime Minister only in early August, Yingluck Shinawatra was just beginning to warm her seat when it became obvious that the floods would only worsen and affect more areas. But that, critics say, is no excuse – perhaps because the neophyte premier was supposedly supported by officials who had more than enough experience in government.

For years, scientists and urban planners had warned successive administrations that even metropolitan Bangkok was prone to massive flooding because it sits on swampland and is slowly sinking. A paper on the 2011 floods by the Singapore-based Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies also points out that the disaster was hardly “unprecedented”.

“The water has risen to similar or higher levels in the past, most notably in 1942,” says the paper, which was published in November 2011. “In 1785 and 1819, the floods were probably at least double the recent heights.”

But these events seemed to have been ignored by Thai policy makers, along with the warnings from scientists and other experts.

When the floodwaters started to breach the existing embankments around Bangkok, officials called in military troops who hastily put up big sandbag barriers around strategic parts of Bangkok to protect its business and tourist districts. The reinforcements either blocked or slowed the flow of water into the heart of the capital, giving authorities enough time to drain water from canals and other waterways.

Setting up the barriers, however, caused further tension in communities already desperately trying to come to grips with living amid stagnant floodwaters. While the sandbag piles kept central Bangkok safe and dry, they prolonged the flooding in districts on the fringes and provinces like Ayutthaya because they blocked the water’s natural course.

Writing in the British Guardian newspaper in 21 October 2011, Thai political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhisak acknowledged Bangkok’s importance to the economy “as it harbours some 40 percent of GDP”. But he also observed, “If Bangkok shares some of the flooding, economic damage will mount but a sense of equality and justice will prevail. When the floods go through the capital, they will find faster release into the Gulf of Thailand.”

First-time flood victims

Thais soaking in floodwaters were angered by the government’s insensitivity to their plight in its quest to protect Bangkok’s commercial and tourist hubs. Some took matters into their own hands and dismantled the makeshift dykes. The government appealed for more understanding, but that may have been hard especially for those who had not expected to be submerged in the first place, yet now had to deal daily with increasingly rank floodwater.

Among them was Uraiwan, the Thai journalist. She lives in Siwalee Village in Pathum Thani, just north of Bangkok. She says it never entered her mind that the overflow from Chao Phraya could ever reach her neighbourhood. That’s why even though she heard about the river’s rising level, she ignored the warning, reasoning that her house lies on an elevated part of the city near the old airport anyway. But not even the airport was spared, and soon her home suffered the same fate. The house’s first floor lay in ruin for weeks.

In the end, even parts of the capital had to be sacrificed just to keep Bangkok’s central business district dry. In the capital’s Rang-sit district, Bangkok Bank deputy manager Chiraphat Santipalakorn still finds it hard to believe that his family home had indeed been submerged in water. Even harder to believe, he says, was what a boatman told him while he was being ferried to work at the height of the floods: underneath them were cars swallowed up by the flood.

Aljeer Moya, who teaches English at Kasintorn Academy in Bangkok’s Bangkae district, says he was in panic during their evacuation that occurred in the early hours of the morning. Like Uraiwan, he did not think there was need to leave his place, which is on the seventh floor of a condominium building. But it became necessary because of a power shutdown in the area. Moya recalls that he had to travel in a dump truck with fellow evacuees, much like, he says, goods to be shipped out, and without their knowing where they were heading.

The ‘River of Kings’

Last 7 July, Thailand’s much loved and respected King Bhumibol Adulyadej embarked on a trip on the Chao Phraya in a rare public appearance and visited riverside communities affected by last year’s flooding. The ailing monarch had left his hospital suite and travelled on the Royal Thai Navy ship to to Nonthaburi province north of Bangkok. He later launched five royal-initiated irrigation projects that include dams, water tunnels, and water gates designed to support agriculture as well as mitigate the effects of forthcoming floods.

In many ways, it was only fitting for the King to choose to travel on the Chao Phraya, and not only because its name means ‘River of Kings’.  By going on the Chao Phraya, it was also as if the Thai monarch was making peace with the river that, despite its periodic overflows, remains a vital part of the Thai people’s way of life, especially those who live on its banks and network of canals called khlongs.

Chao Phraya originates from Nakan Sawan province in the north, at the confluence of the smaller Ping and Nan rivers, then flows southward for 372 kilometres through Thailand’s central plains to Bangkok and then empties into the Gulf of Thailand. In the low alluvial plain, many khlongs split off from the main river. These khlongs are used in irrigating the region’s rice paddies.

People living along the meandering river and its tributaries use the water for agriculture, fishery, travel, and recreation and tourism activities. It is a source of livelihood for a significant segment of the population.

Hotels, restaurants, shops, and an array of tourist spots dot the length of the Chao Phraya in Bangkok and cities beyond the capital. One can see tourists hopping on ferry boats going from one pier to the next to visit visit temples, churches, and museums flanking the river. From the piers, tourists also get the chance to feed the fish that abound in the river. Small eateries by the river serve freshly caught fish on their menus.

Travel on the Chao Phraya using passenger taxi ferries helps decongest land traffic in the capital. The river is also used as a major channel for conveying agricultural and industrial products from northern and central towns to Bangkok.

Underwater every year

Yet while last year’s flooding had government officials and millions of other people in this country scampering, families living in the capital’s Bangkok Noi district took the disaster in stride. Communities living in the district situated on the west bank of the Chao Phraya have in fact adapted to the predictable behaviour of the river, meaning they are ready when floods hit – which is annually.

In one Bangkok Noi community, residents excitedly show this writer their houses spanning the canals that feed into the Chao Phraya. The ground floors of their homes are mostly bare of valuable appliances, in anticipation of the floods they endure every year. Archan Suksaad, 47, relates that once the river’s waters start to rise, families in his community evacuate to the nearest temple and make it their temporary living quarters until the waters recede. It is almost like an annual ritual that lasts a month.

For sure, though, the Great Flood of 2011 turned out to be something else altogether, and  residents themselves point to the marks on the walls that indicate the unusual depth of the floodwaters. Last year, these had reached neck-deep, compared to waist-deep in previous years. Archan also says that their annual flood-induced temple stay lasted a month more than usual in 2011.

Archan and his neighbours lament that Bangkok municipal officers hardly pay their community a visit so they know little of the residents’ predicament. Because of this, these perennial flood victims do not get enough assistance from the government.  Archad says each community has around 5,000 residents, and some families only get a one-time assistance of 400 baht ($13). They receive more help from private foundations, he says.

Local, national, and international nongovernment organisations and foundations are quick to respond to disasters like floods, says Uamdao Ben Naikom, Regional Media Coordinator-Asia for Oxfam. They provide food and clothing and make sure that families have access to clean and safe drinking water.

Uamdao says that at the first sign of flooding, the government normally issues an advisory to families so they can prepare for evacuation, but many stubbornly insist on staying put. They worry that they may lose their possessions once they leave their homes.

Many in Archan’s community say their families have lived there for almost a century, and if they had the means, they would gladly move out and buy property elsewhere. But right now they have no other option but to learn to live with the yearly floods. Then again, a floodgate is now being constructed in their community to help keep floodwaters at bay. Still, the residents are doubtful that the project will be completed in time for this year’s rainy season. If the floodgate is not done by then, they know the temple doors will be open to welcome them.

A grand Plan

On the first month of this year, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck announced her government’s 2012 Flood Management Master Plan designed to preclude a repeat of last year’s devastating floods.

This included the setting up of efficient and integrated forecasting and warning systems and the creation of a national water-information centre to produce up-to-date water situation reports and issue warnings. The Plan also focused on the reforestation of watershed areas and building of water retention areas. Canals would be dredged, dykes strengthened, and more water pumps installed. There were also to be floodwalls built around industrial estates. According to one govermnent minister, some 3.2 billion baht ($106 million) would be allocated for floodwalls for six industrial estates alone.

Businessmen are among those who have lauded the Plan, but its critics have made sure they are heard as well. Pramote Maiklad, former irrigation chief and member of the Strategic Committee for Water Resources Management (SCWRM),  for instance told the English-language Nation in February that he was not confident about the government’s flood-prevention measures. “Just dredging canals across the upper and lower part of the North and Central regions will not stop the flooding,” he said. Pramote then suggested that the government construct floodways to divert floodwater to the sea instead of finding retention areas.

Garnering the most negative comments, however, have been the planned floodwalls around industrial estates, including those in Ayutthaya. Last March, the Stop Global Warming Association (SGWA) slapped seven government agencies with a lawsuit for approving the construction of floodwalls around industrial estates in Ayutthaya, as well as in Pathum Thani and Samut Prakan. According to the SGWA, a group of 39 people living near such estates in Ayutthaya and Pathum Thani had authorised it to represent them in the lawsuit. SGWA president Srisuwan Jani told the Nation, “They are worried that the dykes will raise water levels and affect their homes.”

Earlier, Srisuwan had told the media that the permanent floodwalls would have serious social and environmental impacts because they would change the natural water-flow routes. An official from the Royal Irrigation Department, meanwhile, has admitted the obvious: indeed the communities around the industrial zones will have to bear the brunt of floodwaters as a consequence of the floodwalls.

Sampan Silpanart, president of the Electronics and Computer Employers Association (ECEA), has also expressed concern that his sector would still suffer considerable impact in case of a flood despite the presence of floodwalls. After all, these would not protect employees’ homes that lie outside of the estates, and as the Thai Financial Post noted, “the electronics and computer sector requires a large number of manual workforce to keep the production line going”.

But all the grumbling, worries, warnings, and even a lawsuit against seven of its agencies have not deterred the government from pushing through with its Plan.

By mid-July, the Nation newspaper reported that almost 70 percent  of the floodwall projects were finished, including those in Nava Nakom, Rojana, and Bangpa-in, two of the industrial estates in Ayutthaya that had been damaged heavily by the flood.

 

[Belinda M. Otordoz is a news correspondent of the Manila Times newspaper. She is based in Lucena City, capital of Quezon province, some 135 kms south of Manila.]