Waterlogged Thailand will struggle to prevent future floods

BANGKOK Sat Nov 5, 2011 9:21am EDT

An elderly woman clears debris from the front door of her flooded residence in Bangkok November 2, 2011.  REUTERS/Adrees Latif

An elderly woman clears debris from the front door of her flooded residence in Bangkok November 2, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Adrees Latif

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - As waterlogged Thailand struggles to contain the worst floods in decades, it faces a simple truth: not a whole lot can be done to avoid a repeat disaster in the short term even with a new multi-billion dollar water-management policy.

City dwellers and farmers displaced since the floods began in July, killing 427 people, and foreign investors waiting to pump out factories could face the same thing when the rainy season rolls around again in the middle of next year.

But there are short-term steps to reduce the risk, including better cooperation between agencies with over-lapping responsibilities and an improvement in the management of dams that feed water down into the central flood plain.

At times since the crisis began unfolding, rivalry between different arms of government exacerbated by divided political loyalties has appeared to derail efforts to stop the deadliest flooding in half a century.

"A main weakness in the system is coordination and that can be improved if people set aside their egos. It has to be non-partisan," said Chaiyuth Sukhsri, head of faculty at the Water Resources Engineering Department at Chulalongkorn University.

"In the short term, we can eliminate a third of the problem but the rest is long term. Improving the infrastructure will take years."

The floods have knocked back Thailand's expected growth this year by a couple of percentage points and wiped out a quarter of the main rice crop in the world's biggest rice exporter, putting pressure on global prices.

The disaster has also forced up global prices of computer hard drives and disrupted global auto production after the flooding of industrial estates in the central provinces of Ayutthaya and Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok.

A 400 billion baht ($13 billion) budget deficit has been targeted for this fiscal year from October 1, up from 350 billion baht previously, to help with the recovery.

Looking beyond this disaster and the still unknown cost of destruction, foreign investors would like to see more streamlined crisis management, said Nandor von der Luehe, chairman of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce.

"Maybe the government should look at one agency. There were too many people responsible for different areas, like too many cooks in the kitchen," he said.

"That would be a big step."

"EVERYTHING BUILT ON FLOOD PLAIN"

The role that dams played in the disaster is being debated but some experts say authorities in charge of the dams scattered over uplands in the north were too slow to release water.

When they had to, to stop dams bursting, unusually heavy monsoon rain was falling and the rivers were full.

"Bangkok has grown so much and everything is built on the flood plain. In the short term, not much can be done besides good management," said development economist Sawai Boonma, who has been studying Thailand's flood problem for decades.

"They have try to release the water gradually as it builds up in the dams. This time they waited until the dams were over-capacity. That's why the volume of water was so huge."

The priority of the authorities managing dams is irrigation and they were perhaps understandably reluctant to let a lot of water out early after a drought last year, said Chaiyuth.

In the longer term, Sawai said flood spill-ways, one kilometer (half a mile) wide should be created both to the east and west of Bangkok, with even a smaller one through the city.

People should also think about getting out of the flood plain, where the annual deluge brings such bounty in the fields, said Sawai. He envisages satellite towns built on higher ground linked to Bangkok by high-speed train.

A newer industrial zone southeast of Bangkok, which has no major river basin, has escaped the flooding.

"Not only have they put the industrial estates in the danger area, they've built over the best rice fields. It's lose-lose," Sawai said.

A newer industrial zone southeast of Bangkok, which has no major river basin, has escaped the flooding.

Climate change with its expected rise in sea levels and more storms only make a re-think more critical, he says.

Von der Luehe said Thailand was still good for business, despite the floods and the danger of more, because of factors such as location and infrastructure.

"Obviously, investors should consider locations. Not everything has been flooded," he said. "Overall, when we look at the neighboring countries, Thailand is still a strong destination. We are in a good position here."

(Additional reporting by Ploy Ten Kate; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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