Archive for the ‘Bangkok Floods 2011’ Category

The Causes of the Flood

“Behold I [God] will bring the waters of a great flood upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, under heaven. All things that are in the earth shall be consumed.”
                 – Genesis 6:16

That’s how floods happen, right? God gets angry. There’s a lot of rain. Flood happens. Well, not in Thailand. In fact, the rainfall last year was only marginally greater than usual. The catastrophic flooding was more caused by man’s greed than the hand of God.

The primary cause of the flooding was the mismanagement of water levels in major dams on rivers running south through the central plains. Water was held back so that fields downstream would remain dry so that rice farmers could make their third harvest of the year. This meant that the dams filled up to capacity and beyond. It was only mid-October when the massive Bhumibol dam was full to the brim. So when the rain kept coming, there was no option other than to let the water flow unconstrained down river.

What should have happened next is that excess water should have been redirected to low lying land – so-called “monkey cheeks”. However, much of this land is used for farming, and farmers don’t particularly like having their crops ruined. Influential people who depend upon farmers’ votes for their lucrative positions ensured that the sluice gates on their home turf remained firmly closed. It has been said that in Suphanburi province the MP personally holds all the sluice gate keys, and that not a single sluice gate was opened in his constituency.

So, farmers crops were spared – crops estimated to be worth about $95 million – at the cost of the devastation of seven major industrial estates – damage estimated at over $31 trillion – yes, trillion! And that’s not even counting the cost to the millions of people whose homes were flooded or small businesses ruined.

When the flood water reached Bangkok it was managed with what looks like ineptitude. But then the Flood Relief Operation Centre was manned by political cronies of the government, rather than by experts in water and disaster management. (They couldn’t even chose a dry spot for their offices, and were quickly flooded and had to be relocated.) Many mistakes were made in the opening and closing of sluice gates around Bangkok. And things weren’t made any better by angry residents forcibly opening gates so that their homes could be drained a little sooner at the expense of those living elsewhere.

Lack of building planning is another contributing factor. For example, before Suvarnabhumi airport was built the area acted as both a sponge (the original name for the area translates as “Cobra Swamp”) and a floodway to the sea. Now the water has nowhere to go. Industrial estates, housing estates and roads have all blocked the ways for water to drain.

Bangkok’s klongs have largely fallen into a state of disrepair. Local residents use them to dispose of their rubbish (and the stench from them can be unbearable) plus they are rarely dredged. To make matters worse, people have built homes at the sides of klongs, stealing part of the waterway and narrowing the klong. In at least one case an entire klong has “disappeared” after being filled in and built over.

***

So there it is, a sad litany of greed, selfishness and incompetence. Still, surely lessons have been learned, so this won’t happen again? Well, it seems not. The Bumibhol dam is still 91% full and experts are warning that this is far too high for this time of year, with the rainy season just around the corner. I guess I won’t be putting the waterwings away just yet.

[585]

Flood Update

Sometimes I feel a tiny sliver of hope that the waters might pass leaving my home untouched. Of course, I try to push those feelings aside. It helps when I look at the satellite map showing the extent of the flooding and the enormous volume of water which has to pass through Bangkok to reach the sea.

Satellite image of Thailand flooding, 5 November 2011
Click here for larger version.

(The area covered by the image is roughly 250 x 175 km.)

It also helps when I remember how people from flooded communities keep tearing down the embankments that keep them flooded, so flooding those in other communities.

***

The good news is that there’s some bottled water available in supermarkets again – though strictly rationed. The bad news is that supermarkets are getting harder to get to: Tesco-Lotus is inaccessible because of flooding; Big C at Fashion Island is closed because of the flooding. Villa and TOPS are (as far as I know) still open, but the associated multistorey car parks are full of cars parked to avoid the floods, so are unusable because there’s nowhere to park. MaxValue is still accessible via a long detour, but is on very low lying ground, so could be flooded very soon. That just leaves a further away branch of TOPS, which is very expensive.

***

When one gets to the supermarket, there’s very little to buy; the shelves are almost bare. It’s like being in a Soviet-era theme park.

Last night I opened a brand new, sealed bag of Jasmine rice to find it full of weevils. It’ll be some time before I’ll be able to have Thai rice again, I suspect. The only consolation is I still have some brown rice (which I’m really not keen on) and some Japanese rice (which somehow just doesn’t seem right with Thai food).

TOPS still has Basmati rice, but at eight quid for a half kilo, it’ll stay off the menu.

***

Bangkok is virtually inaccessible from the north and east, with all the roads cut by flooding. Now the last major road to the south has started to flood, and the powers that be have decided not to try to protect it. They reckon that another road, to the west, which is currently under about 80 cm of water, can be drained in a day or two, and that will provide an alternative way in and out of the city. If that doesn’t work (and given the track record of the government and its so-called water management, I don’t expect it to), Bangkok will be completely cut off, and the Stalinist stocking of the supermarkets will seem positively abundant.

***

To the risk of being snapped by a crocodile we can now add the risk of being bitten by a green mamba – one of Africa’s most lethal snakes. 15 of them escaped a few days ago. To add to the fun, they closely resemble rather less dangerous Thai snakes.

***

Emotionally, for those of us still on dry land, the uncertainty is the toughest thing to bear. First we were told that there was a risk for a couple of days, and then everything would be OK. Once those two days had passed we were told there’s a danger from high tides this weekend and a lesser risk the following weekend. Well, both those weekends have passed, and the risk has neither gone away or even diminished.

Now there’s flooding to the north of me at Fashion Island and along Ram Intra. There’s also flooding to the east (Suan Siam) and west (Nawamin). An industrial estate (Bang Chan) a couple of km to the south east is beginning to flood and, like all the industrial estates before it, is unlikely to be saved. At the moment it would still be possible for me to flee the area. But to where? Or should I stick things out? Decamp to upstairs and fish for crocodiles whilst keeping and eye out for a green mamba’s strike.

Perhaps I should haul my television upstairs. Then I can watch footage of people flooded out of their homes, living in refugee centres, people who lived in single storey buildings who’ve lost everything, people whose ordinary lives of poverty’s quiet desperation have been made just that bit more desperate. And then I can thank the fates for sparing me from that.

[575]

In Adversity

Adversity can bring people together and bring out the best of their natures. We think of the noble and dignified behaviour of the Japanese following the hurricane and tsunami earlier this year. We think of the spirit of the blitz (a spirit so strong that it convinced many that the Queen Mother – gawd rest ‘er soul – was something other than a snobbish, cold-hearted, calculating monster). And here in Thailand we have switched on the TV or opened the newspaper to see images of people selflessly filling sandbags, carrying elderly people through flood water and sharing what food and water they have with others. Sadly there is another side to human nature.

Politicians, already licking their chops at the prospect of all the money to be syphoned off from the infrastucture projects which will doubtless be initiated when the waters recede have been taking aid given by others and slapping their names on it. One particularly notable truckload of aid bore the message “With Love From Pol Lt Col Dr Thaksin Shinawatra.”

Flood Cartoon
Cartoon from The Bangkok Post

The Flood Relief Organisation Committee [FROC] (an organisation headed by red shirt leaders) has been shamelessly partisan in its distribution of aid; red shirt politicians have had no problems getting aid to their supporters whilst others struggle without food or water. FROC also appears to be hoarding donations, rather than distributing them to those in need for less-than-clear motives.

The two main parties squabble incessantly. The Democrats want a state of emergency declared so that the army can have greater powers to act; Pheu Thai fears the army might use the opportunity to stage another coup, so uses the police force, which is neither trained or equipped for this type of work. Result: people suffer.

Not only politicians are seeking to profit from the floods: the price of food and water in markets has sky-rocketted. For example, eggs are now 8 Baht each, whereas until recently they were 3 Baht. The cost of renting an apartment in areas close to Bangkok but unaffected by flooding has also shot up, and owners are still insisting on minimum 6 month or 12 month contracts.

Angry mobs have been tearing down flood defences and destroying sluice gates to protect their property (or hasten the flow of water out from flooded properly) at the expense of their neighbours.

And there has been widespread looting of houses vacated by their owners when the waters rose. A friend of mine whose Ayutthaya house is still 2 metres under water has been relieved of his TV, welding equipment and much, much more. The thieves, taking their loot by boat, must have made several trips.

So, adversity can bring out both the best and the worst in people. But at a time of such hardship and sorry, perhaps it’s best to put the telescope to one’s blind eye.

[573]

Flood Preparations (II)

Took a stroll around the moobaan this morning. Snapped a few shots of what people have done to prepare.

The developer has installed some pumps to clear water from the drains. The land outside two sides of the moobaan is significantly lower, so if there’s heavy rain this should help.

Water pump

Water Pump 2

For many people a car is a prized possession. Cars have been wrapped

Wrapped cars

And put on blocks

Car on blocks

And put on ramps

Car on ramp

Or mega ramps

Mega ramps

Personally, I’d rather have this car swept away and claim on the insurance. But to each his own.

Car on blocks

And to protect their homes people have taken all sorts of measures.

Sandbags and a rather fetching striped sheet:

Sand bagged home

More stripy sheets

Sand bagged home 2

Floor tiles seems a little desperate, but if there are no sandbags available …

Floor tiles protect

A breeze block wall is seriously serious:

Breeze block flood defence

Will plastic sheeting hold back the flood?

Plastic sheet against the flood

Not sure how effective the guard dogs will be:

Sandbags with guard dogs

Nice bags. And I’m sure the water won’t even think of entering through the hedge.

Sandbag fail

Do they really expect the water to get this high?

High defences

Some serious sandbagging:

Serious sandbags

And it’s important to add a little kitsch to one’s bags

Sandbags with kitsch

[571]

Flood Preparations (I)

As the flood waters begin to cover northern Bangkok I’ve been busy trying as best I can to protect my possessions.

The first point of entry for the water is likely to be through the shower room drain and downstairs toilet.

The toilet has been sandbagged and weighted down.

Sandbagged toilet

A pipe has been sealed to the shower drain to contain the rising water.

Sealed, piped shower drain

The outside of the house has been sealed with silicone and polycarbonate boards plus copious quantities of duct tape.

Patio doors sealed

And the sitting room air-conditioner has been wrapped with multiple layers of clingfilm and newspaper – not to keep it dry (that’s not possible), but to limit the amount of dirt that might get into its inner workings.

Wrapped air-con

Inside things have been lifted up. (Those things don’t include my spirits.)

The washing machine (formerly outside) is now on the kitchen counter. So convenient, not having to bend down to load it any more.

Washing machine on kitchen counter

Rather less conveniently, the fridge is now propped up on a couple of dining chairs.

Propped up fridge

And the dining table is out of commission for a while, and the dining room cabinets form a precarious tower.

Stacked furniture

I don’t know what the future holds. Will I have to flee in the face of advancing waters, abandoning my home to the flood? Will the waters come too fast and I’ll be trapped upstairs living on dry dried noodles and tinned fruit? Or will I be fortunate and the waters pass me by? Who knows? (And if the government does, they’re keeping schtum.)

[570]

The Water isn’t the Problem

It seems that I’ve misunderstood the problem here in Bangkok: it’s not the flood water, it’s migratory blue whales.

[569]

The Flood in Figures

28 out of 76 provinces flooded
10,468 villages inundated
2,469,639 people affected
356 dead

10,687,143 rai [17,100 sq. km] of farmland flooded
12.6 million livestock affected

76 main highways (and hundreds of smaller roads) impassable
All northbound trains cancelled

Bhumibol dam at 99.8% of capacity
Sirikit dam at 99.6% of capacity
Pasak dam at 134% of capacity (!)

(Statistics from http://disaster.go.th)

It will take about 40 days for the 12 billion cubic meters of water, enough to cover Connecticut a meter deep, to drain into the Gulf of Thailand

(Royal Irrigation Department, 19 October, via Bloomberg)

[568]

Bangkok Floods

“Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.”
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1797-8

Things here are beginning to get difficult. One of the most pressing concerns is drinking water. I was due a delivery of three carboys today, but learned yesterday that the company’s facilities have been flooded, and though they have stock, they can’t get it out. I therefore, more in hope than expectation, decided to visit Tesco-Lotus on the perchance they might have a few bottles in stock.

The first obvious sign that things weren’t normal in Bangkok was the sight of thousands of cars, pick-ups, minivans and even buses parked on every stretch of elevated roadway, blocking all but a single lane in each direction. There was barely a gap between them; every available scrap of space was occupied. The chaos that will be caused by such selfish behaviour if there’s a need quickly to evacuate part of Bangkok is unthinkable; and a single broken down vehicle or crash could paralyse the whole area. Particularly disconcerting is the cars parked on overhead U-turns: the roads are now too narrow for larger vehicles to pass.

Traffic was relatively light. In a few places klongs has overflowed onto the roadway, limiting traffic to the outside lanes, but nothing too serious, until I got close to Tesco-Lotus. The U-turn which leads to the store was full of water, perhaps to a depth of 2-3 metres. I had to proceed straight and find somewhere else to U-turn. Then I hit a terrible traffic jam. Four lanes of traffic were funnelled into a single lane approaching an elevated section reduced to a single lane by parked cars. Traffic was barely moving. Fortunately, there was a U-turn gap in the central reservation just a couple of hundred metres ahead, though it took me a good half hour to reach it. The returning carriageway was badly flooded, with cars restricted to the outer lane with water perhaps a foot deep. Pick-ups and trucks happily plunged through the deeper inner lanes sending great plumes of foul water into the air.

As I approached Tesco-Lotus I heard on the wireless that Tesco-Lotus had announced that it was closing its stores because of supply difficulties. There was a certain trepidation as I approached the store entrance: would it be locked? If not, would the shelves be bare?

It wasn’t locked, though there were plenty of empty stretches on the shelves. Unsurprisingly, there were no bottles of water to be had. Dried noodles had also disappeared. Vegetables were in very short supply, apart from the crazy ones like celery which only mad foreigners eat. In fact, most of the vegetables that remained had been marked down – presumably in preparation for the store’s imminent closing. Rather to my surprise, the supply of meat and fish was pretty much as normal.

I stocked up on tinned fruit, tinned nuts, bottles of fizzy pop, packets of crisps. I can do “the healthy thing” after the threat of flooding subsides.

***

The whole uncertainty of the current situation is pretty unbearable. Estimates for my area range from flooding to a depth of 10-20 cm (which would barely lap at my driveway) to 1 to 1½ metres. “Peak Water” has changed from the middle of last week, to last weekend, to tomorrow, to next weekend. The worst affected areas were expected to be to the east and west of Bangkok, but the north and the areas next to the Chao Phraya river now seem to be the critical areas. Who to believe? What to expect? STC captured the feeling rather well in the same poem:

“Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.”

[567]

Mr. Blue Sky

“Sun is shinin’ in the sky
There ain’t a cloud in sight
It’s stopped rainin’ ev’rybody’s in a play
And don’t you know
It’s a beautiful new day hey, hey.”

It is indeed a glorious day in Bangkok here today. The sun is shining, the sky is bright azure blue, there’s a gentle breeze taking the edge off the heat. Hard to believe that a wall of water is heading towards us, promising to inundate the entire city (according to Prime Minister Yingluck – she’s such a ray of sunshine) to a depth of one metre or more for the next four or so weeks.

Rather than relaxing and taking in the gorgeous weather I’ve been rather busy today. I’ve taken more furniture upstairs. I’ve cut large polycarbonate sheets to put over the doorways. I’ve done my final loads of washing in preparation for the washing machine to be moved indoors and placed on the kitchen countertop. (I’ve hired some burly men for that job. They’re coming in an hour or so.) I’ve wrapped the large air-conditioner for the sitting room in multiple layers of clingfilm and newspaper, the thinking being that the newspaper will filter out most of the dirt in the water – though that may just be wishful thinking. Now I rely on the small air-conditioner for the study to cool the whole of the downstairs. Much as I’d like to think it’s “the little engine that could”, I rather expect to be disappointed (and overly sweaty).

Still to do: put some pipes in the floor drains in the downstairs shower room and seal them in; put a sandbag in the downstairs toilet; seal the polycarbonate sheets to the doors with silicone mastic and tape over the joins.

If the floods don’t rise too fast I’ll wrap the study air-conditioner. I also plan on raising the fridge on four chairs and similarly raising the dining table. There’s nothing I can do about the sofa. If the waters come it will be ruined. My vast bookcase is in a similar situation.

The emergency pack is ready to go, with clothes for a few days, my passport, my medicines and my notebook. The plan is to head south – perhaps to Hua Hin or Cha Am. Put Whisky in a kennel and find an affordable guesthouse or hotel. Of course, getting out of the city could be a problem: idiots seeking to protect their vehicles have parked their cars, pickups, minivans and even buses on the inner lanes of all the elevated express ways, often three lanes deep, leaving but a single lane for anyone trying to flee Bangkok. And a single broken down vehicle will cause gridlock.

On the plus side, if Kevin Costner is planning on making Water World 2, he can probably do it much more cheaply in Bangkok over the next few weeks.

[566]

Lies or Incompetence – Bangkok Floods

The various arms of the Thai authorities have been doing an excellent job of keeping the people of Bangkok informed about the flood risk.

14/Sep The Irrigation Department “remains confident the capital is safe”
12/Oct “Bangkok should be safe” – Prime Minister Yingluck
14/Oct “The floods threatening Bangkok are now under control and water levels are starting to fall” – Prime Minister Yingluck
17/Oct “Bangkok is safe, with the much-feared mass of water runoff from the North having moved past the capital, flood prevention agencies say”
17/Oct “Bangkok is not yet safe from the flooding” – Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra
18/Oct “Bangkok residents should not panic as the capital will not be flooded” – Director of the Flood Relief Operation Centre
18/Oct “The capital could be hit by floods tomorrow, as a large volume of northern runoff has been flowing into Khlong Rangsit” – Bangkok Governor

(All quotations taken from The Bangkok Post.)

Then there was the false alarm fiasco. On 14 October the Science and Technology Minister issued a flood evacuation alert for northern Bangkok saying that runoff from the north had burst through a sluice gate saying:

“Rush to Don Meuang immediately. The government can’t tell how many hours are left.” Panic ensued. Except the sluice gate was actually fine.

He later said:

“Don’t panic, Bangkok residents. Bangkok is 100% safe.”

With such inconsistent information, who knows where the truth lies?

Personally, I was feeling fairly confident of keeping my feet dry until yesterday. I live inside the protective barrier surrounding central Bangkok – a network of elevated roads, barriers rivers and canals that is intended to keep the capital safe. Areas to the north and east of Bangkok, outside the barrier are already flooded. Then came the announcement of seven out of 50 Bangkok districts are “at high risk of flooding”. Seven out of 50 doesn’t sound too bad until you realised they represent 40% of Bangkok’s area. It sounds particularly bad when you realise that you live in one of them. The prediction for here is flooding to a depth of 1 to 1.2 metres. It seems that some of the flood water coming from the north is to be diverted via a canal which runs close to my house, into the protected zone, right across Bangkok and into the Chao Phraya River which will take it out to sea. The logic of this rather escapes me: what is the purpose of the protective barrier if not to protect?

One is left with a feeling that the powers that be aren’t incompetent or lying – they’re both.

[564]