BANGKOK (AlertNet) - Thailand's floods have killed close to 700 people since July. While unusually heavy rains triggered the crisis, some experts have questioned the way the authorities prepared for and responded to the country’s worst floods in half a century.
The flooding of farmland and shutting down of seven industrial estates has led to tens of thousands of jobs losses. Following is a summary of points aid workers and flood experts speaking to AlertNet suggested Thailand could learn after the disaster that has disrupted the lives of some 13 million people.
* A comprehensive flood-management system
The sheer volume of water that threatened the country – equivalent to millions of Olympic-sized swimming pools – made it difficult for the government to protect all of its citizens and assets.
However, many experts said the flood damage was exacerbated by poor land-use planning – such as building houses and factories in vulnerable areas like floodplains and low-lying zones.
Experts also cited problems with water-resource management and seasonal tides. One reason why there was such a huge volume of water was that upstream dams, managed by different government agencies, released billions of cubic metres of water after they were almost full. People have criticised water-resource management in Thailand for being tailored towards irrigation, not flood management.
Experts also said Thailand should stop seeing floods as ad-hoc disasters in need of short-term relief, but as serious threats to both economic and social development. A comprehensive, long-term policy that deals with the root causes as well as the emerging threat of climate change is urgently needed, they said.
* Improved and apolitical coordination among government agencies
This would require a change from how water is currently managed, whereby multiple government agencies have overlapping responsibilities but little cooperation. There isn’t a single water agency that can cut across different outfits and coordinate disaster response.
Experts said coordination was also lacking between Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government and the opposition-led Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). And news reports quoted aid experts as saying poor coordination between the government and international organisations, including the United Nations, hit food-relief efforts.
Both the government and BMA gave conflicting and contradictory information about the floods. For example, Yingluck’s government originally said Bangkok would be spared in the floods, while the BMA said it wouldn’t.
The country has also been criticised for political infighting during the crisis. The infighting between the Flood Relief Operations Command (FROC) set up to handle the disaster and Bangkok Governor Sukhumband Paribatra is believed to have slowed down decision-making, experts said.
* Engaging the public in decision-making
One of the most controversial decisions has been the use of huge sandbags as flood barriers to spare the inner parts of Thailand’s capital Bangkok, which accounts for some 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
These 2.5-tonne “big bags” kept central Bangkok dry, but it also meant houses and businesses located on the wrong side of the barrier were submerged, leading to angry confrontations between local residents and the authorities.
Experts say governments would increasingly be forced into making such difficult choices and tradeoffs as a result of climate change, but said such decisions cannot be made in isolation and that the public must be engaged in the decision-making process.
* Equal access to aid and public services
Many said the battle to protect the more affluent urban centre in Bangkok at the expense of surrounding provinces showed where the priorities and loyalties of the government and the opposition lay.
There were also numerous reports of discrimination against migrant workers from neighbouring impoverished countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos in terms of the distribution of flood-relief goods and services.
Myanmar migrants who chose to return home faced threats and extortion, while those who stayed have received little support or, vulnerable to ruthless landlords and employers, have lost work and fear losing their homes.
Aid workers said they are extremely concerned about the exploitation of migrants in this disaster, calling it a result of the government’s “systematic failure” to protect people who have contributed to the country’s economic well-being.
* Compensation for the people, not just for investor confidence
On Monday, the Thai cabinet approved a plan to disburse 20 billion baht ($645 million) rapidly for initial post-flood rebuilding and to stimulate the economy. The majority (some 13 billion baht) is for 5,000 baht ($160) of compensation for each flood-affected household in Bangkok and 62 other provinces, the Bangkok Post reported.
However, an earlier investigation by the paper found the claims process would be long and bureaucratic. Claimants are required to provide photos of the damage and documents they may have lost to the floods.
There has been much fretting by the government on how to win back investors’ confidence – especially Japanese companies. Aid workers say the floods’ impacts on people’s lives – not just on business – must not be overlooked.
* Public information needs
Experts said information about the floods during the initial stages was not centralised and was unreliable. This improved afterwards, but political point-scoring seem to trump the needs of the public, they said.
Accurate, reliable information in times of a disaster can be as life-saving as food or shelter and could help affected communities make important decisions, whereas the wrong kind of information can spark unnecessary panic.
For example, in mid-October Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi urged people to rush to the old Don Mueang airport immediately. “The government cannot tell how many hours are left,” he said. Another minister stepped in to quash the warning soon after.
* Awareness of changing climate
No matter how state-of-the-art they are, engineering solutions do not last forever. They become obsolete as the environment and living conditions change.
Experts underline it is important to make sure communities are well prepared for, and understand the risks of, disasters in their areas.
This is becoming more important as reports – a 2009 report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as well as 2010 World Bank-ADB joint report – have found that extreme weather events in Thailand have already become more frequent and damaging.
Thailand’s policy on climate change is still in its infancy, experts have said.
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)