Friday, November 11, 2011

Thailand's Massive Floods

Thailand has been in the grips of a major flood, the worst it has seen in twenty years -- some say ever. But why has it happened and what has been the response?

First a little geography. The water from all of the Center and North (but not the Northeast) drains down the Chao Praya River, eventually funneling through Bangkok.

Of course, the immediate cause was a unusually large amount of rainfall in September (about twice the normal). And yes, it was magnified by lost of native forests. But the real tragedy was the lack of preparedness.

As in the field of safety, in disasters you must be ready before the disaster occurs. After it happens, there is simply to little time to react.

Amazingly, Thailand (and especially Bangkok) were not prepared. When the flooding started everybody in the government went into panic mode. Different agencies had different ideas, and politicians had their own ideas which were different still. It ended up with not much of anything happenning. Of course, the water did not care, it just kept flowing.

The government set up the Flood Response Operation Centre, composed of ministers with no experience in engineering, hydrology, etc. What you had was politicians telling experts what to do (instead of the other way around).

Thailand firstly should of had a clear command structure. The should of been a emergency plan that was enacted as soon as the situation became clear. This would include having procedures in place, such as what gates to open/close, where the water is directed to, etc.

The second part of the problem has been lack of zoning. A big issue is the flooding of some industrial estates. But many of these were told by the Royal Irrigation Department not to build in the areas they are now located. (And even more amazing is that the insurance companies did not tell them the same thing). And now the government is going to give these same companies a large amount of money for the loss of revenue due to the flood.

Why was this condition allowed to happen? To begin with politicians seem to only care about keeping power and with some mundane things.

Second is denial. It could never happen! That was exactly the attitude we saw before the tsunami happened in 2004. This is despite the fact that Thailand gets a lot of rain.

Lastly, the push for "economic growth" has encouraged businesses to do whatever they want. The government set up industrial estates with incentives to encourage businesses to move there. But as mentioned above, many of these were placed in areas susceptible to flooding. The environmental impact assessments are for individual companies and ignore the overall factors such as flooding.

These factors have led to little planning for such a massive disaster, and what little planning has been done is piecemeal and completely inadequate.

But the real losers are the people, especially those outside Bangkok. They have been promised very little government help when compared to the millions being already promised to businesses.

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