Thailand's floods: complex political and geographical factors behind the crisis

The floods this year in Thailand have been unprecedented. Floods have now entered parts of Bangkok, the country's capital city, and the fate of the rest of the city hangs in the balance. An extraordinary volume of water – more than 10,000 million cubic metres – somehow needs to get from Thailand's central plains to the sea, with Bangkok standing in the way.

02 November 2011
The 2011 monsoon season brought unusually heavy rains and severe floods to many south-east Asian countries. Thailand was worst affected, with large parts of the Thai capital Bangkok under water (Photo: Chrisgel Ryan Cruz, Creative Commons via Flickr)

The 2011 monsoon season brought unusually heavy rains and severe floods to many south-east Asian countries. Thailand was worst affected, with large parts of the Thai capital Bangkok under water (Photo: Copyright, Chrisgel Ryan Cruz, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Human and financial cost of the flooding

So far, over 400 people have been killed in flood-related incidents, and it is estimated that the economic cost of the affected industry and agriculture is at 186 billion baht (around USD $6.2 billion), which could double if Bangkok is badly affected. 

Thailand’s flood crisis began in July and August in Northern Thailand.  The first areas to be affected by the floods in August and September were the Central plains of Thailand. Then the central region and towns such as Lopburi, Nakhon Sawan and Ayutthaya, which are located in a river valley, were affected in mid-October. All of these areas were (and many still are) 60-70% submerged under up to 2 metres of water, forcing people to either evacuate their homes, or live on the second floor of their houses.

According to the Bangkok Post newspaper (20/10/11), the disaster has devastated 837 factories in 6 industrial estates, leading to the loss of 370,316 jobs.  Ayutthaya and Pathum Thani, a huge industrial zone with many factories producing goods such as cars, electronic parts and clothes, were swamped, causing thousands of people to temporarily lose their jobs as factories were forced to end operations. It will take at least 45 days after the floodwaters have receded for factories to begin operating again – in the meantime, many of the factory workers, who were mostly migrants from other parts of Thailand or from Burma, Laos and Cambodia, have been forced to return to their homes in order to get by. 

Unprecedented flooding

These unprecedented floods in the central plains and Bangkok are due to a variety of factors. Firstly, the geography of Bangkok and its surrounding areas make it prone to flooding, being situated on natural flood plains near the mouth of the Chao Phraya river delta in to the Gulf of Thailand with many networks of canals used for irrigation and transport.  As a consequence, the Bangkok Metropolitan Region, and the cities of the central plains to the North of Bangkok, are prone to regular flooding almost every year.

While Thailand usually experiences some floods during the rainy season, this year has seen far more than the usual amount of rain. While there are three large dams which help to regulate the water flow in the central plains, this year they could not cope with the large amount of rainfall and so had to continue releasing water even into already very full rivers. Every year, there is a fine balancing act between releasing too much water and risking shortages later on if there is little rain, or releasing too little water and being over-capacity when a heavy monsoon hits.

This year, the rain was heavier than usual. Thus, the rain and runoff from dams are major sources of the very big volume of water now needing to reach the sea. The very high tides of October and November mean that the water level in the Chao Phraya river is already very high and is struggling to cope with the added runoff from the north. This is more than Bangkok’s usually effective storm drains can handle.

Water management: sensitive political matter

Combined with these natural and water management problems is the fact that the last few months have been a time of change for the Thai government – general elections in July brought in a new Phuea Thai government (the red shirt side), promising populist policies and measures. This change in government meant a change in most of the country’s top officials, combined with the end of the fiscal year, which usually brings in new staff to key posts.

The new government and the previous government have been strongly opposed to each other, and the new government itself is composed of many different factions who are not always very united, having to share their positions in different ministries. The floods suddenly meant the government had to present a united and more cohesive response – but this was not going to happen easily.  On top of this, water management in Thailand involves 16 organisations, from four major Ministries. This very sectoral approach makes collaboration difficult, compounded by a new government with new officials.

The direction in which excess water is drained has become a very sensitive political matter. In the case of Bangkok, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration  is under the governorship of the opposition Democratic party, so developing a cohesive plan and good collaboration with the Pheu Thai central government was made  all the more difficult, and gave rise to political games. Certain politicians or influential people are also keen to keep their areas and their constituents dry, and this means that water is not always diverted to the canals where it should go. There have been  several protests by communities against the plan to drain water to their areas and, in some cases, this has led to  flood protection walls being damaged or undermined.

Ultimately, the Prime Minister has announced special regulations to take over all flood management  powers from municipalities and all other government organizations. However, the lack of unity within the government has meant that different Ministers have made conflicting announcements, and collaboration remains difficult.

The floods have now advanced to Bangkok and surrounding cities. Currently a number of districts have already been seriously affected – particularly those to the north and west of the city which, in some areas, are already under 2 metres of water. But the situation is critical as the Chao Phraya river confronting Bangkok’s flood walls has already risen to the new record high of 2.5 metres above sea level during the recent high tides, while the water flooding the north of the city continues to flow in towards the inner city. 

Confusion reigns

It could take until mid-November for the biggest volume of water to pass through Bangkok. In the meantime, those who have been affected have had to be evacuated from their homes to temporary shelters, many doing so without any support from the authorities. Where flood relief is provided, it is sometimes used for political gain by politicians, with MPs being a source of distribution of relief goods only to their voters. There is a lot of conflicting information in the news and media, leading to confusion about whether to leave or not. Everyone is affected, from the very poor to the rich. Three days of holiday were declared from 27th-31st October, and schools remain closed, leading to an exodus from Bangkok by those who can still escape and have the means to do so.

Community-led responses to the flooding

In response to this disaster, urban and rural community networks have linked together to organize  support for affected communities in 22 provinces. Activities range from:

  • surveying the affected areas
  • organizing relief and food centers
  • providing emergency supplies, tools and food
  • linking up communities that can help each other.  

Members of the national network of low-income community organisations have agreed to contribute (US $1) 30 Bht each to help those affected. These and other funds that have been raised will be managed by the community network in aid of flood relief activities listed above. Planning for a more organized rehabilitation stage, which is meant to be  a community-driven process  in both urban and rural areas, has also begun.

With major flooding in Cambodia and flash flooding in Burma leading to the loss of lives as well as incomes, it is now time for the region to pay more attention to flood management plans and for communities to prepare disaster rehabilitation plans.

This blog was written by Somsook Boonyabancha and Diane Archer at the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights.