Could Thailand Withstand Another Flood?
A year ago, central Thailand was inundated with what may have been the worst floods in the country’s history, covering the Ayutthaya plain with up to three meters of water and drowning a major segment of the multinational car and electronics industries that had settled there.
The question today is whether it could happen again. Although the Thai government has developed a reconstruction plan focused on immediate relief and recovery and as well as projected long-term solutions including raising dykes, extensive reforestation and other solutions, there are reasons to be concerned whether the government is moving fast enough.
Certainly, as climate change has grown more severe, severe weather incidents have been picking up all over the region. Although there have been no signs so far that Thailand might take another hit like the country got from last year’s Tropical Storm Nock Ten, which inundated 20 Thai provinces, at least 85,000 people in Myanmar next door to Thailand were forced out of their homes this month by what has been described as the worst flooding since 2004.
Other cities have been hit hard as well. Manila has been flooded repeatedly. Beijing was hit by the heaviest rainfall in 60 years in late July, leaving 37 people dead and thousands stranded at the city’s main airport. Roofs collapsed and downed power lines electrocuted an unknown number of people Taiwan has been battered by Tropical Storm Tambin, which dropped 500 mm of rain on the southern part of the island and appears about to return it again. Tropical Storm Bolaven has turned into a super typhoon, with sustained winds of 185 km per hour and is headed straight up the Yellow Sea towards North Korea. Citizens of Jiangsu in China have been warned to prepare for severe weather.
“While the 2011 (Thai) flood disaster was exceptional in scale and impact, climate change projections suggest that natural disasters of this kind are likely to occur more frequently and more severely in Thailand in the years ahead,” the Asia Foundation warned in a recent report. “It is important to recognize that this unique moment needs to extend beyond the communities that were most seriously affected by the 2011 flooding and that Thailand needs to develop good practices, lessons learned, and knowledge-sharing to shape and influence broader and longer-term environmental governance in Thailand.”
So did Thailand learn its lesson? The answer is yes and maybe. Construction work to raise levees and dikes has been going on feverishly. The multinational electronics and car assembly companies -- predominantly Japanese and American ones – have taken their own steps. The government has been criticized on several fronts by creating a development plan that was both too hasty and somewhat too late.
One of the biggest problems in 2011 was that government officials left too much water in five reservoirs upstream from the major urban areas surrounding Bangkok. The government has this time left considerably less water in the reservoirs, according to a study by the Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO). In January, the country’s two largest dams, Bhumibol Dam was 91 percent full, Sirikit Dam 89 percent full. By the end of March, both had been reduced to 60 percent. According to Jetro, capacity of the two is now down to about 45 percent.
Rivers are being dredged to increase capacity, according to the JETRO study, so that water can flow faster towards the Isthmus. Existing inner roads are being raised and turned into dikes to act as a bulwark against high water. Entrance routes are being raised into the factories so that trucks and can move in and out to evacuate goods. Massive concrete barriers are being built around industrial parks themselves.
For instance, at the Sudhrat Nakon industrial park, 43 factories are expected to be now crouching behind a 12-kilometer earth dike and serviced by an elevated entrance road that has been raised from 6.5 meters to 8 meters. Detention areas – areas where floodwaters can be diverted safely until water levels have begun to fall – now have been increased by 3,600 square kilometers
An official with the National Disaster Center at Rangsik University recently told an American Chamber of Commerce Thailand luncheon that weather patterns, and the current low levels of water being held in the dams at present would indicate there will probably be no flood.
However, construction crews are racing the clock. Work on the Sudhrat Nakon park is scheduled to be finished by November, well into the rainy season. Asia Foundation said a proposed extensive program of flood relief worth Bt350 billion US$11.7 billion was being criticized for having been hastily developed and doesn’t have clear terms of reference. As with any major public construction project in Thailand, the plan has also come under the scrutiny of the National Anti -Corruption Commission.
Italthai, the country’s major construction company, has brought in workers and materiel from international sources in a major effort to raise dykes. In particular, the government efforts have been concentrated on the Ayutthaya plain area, where eight industrial estates were inundated by three meters of floodwaters for months, destroying thousands of brand-new cars, electronic equipment and hundreds of millions of dollars of factory infrastructure built to produce the manufactures.
Two main concerns addressed by the flood recovery plan are restoring economic losses in flood-affected provinces and assuring international industrial enterprises operating in flood-prone areas. To restore confidence with foreign investors, the government has allocated a large amount of funding to industrial owners to build dykes to protect the industrial zone from future flooding and has held large seminars with investors to discuss how the government’s plan will protect businesses. Despite the government’s efforts, many industrial leaders have also expressed frustration with the lack of information from the government.
So it looks like Thailand will probably skate through in 2012. However, one Thai businessman warned, given weather patterns for this year, it should be okay. But if the skies empty again like they did when Nock Ten came over the region and stayed for days, the government is still behind the curve.