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October 02, 2011

Thailand Floods Worst in Five Decades

by Ron Corben

Flooding in Thailand during this year's monsoon season has killed more than 200 people and affected at least two million more.

Officials say the inundation across thousands of hectares of land is the most severe in decades and the United Nations is calling on governments in Asia to spend more on disaster risk reduction.

Weather forecasters say Thailand's monsoon rainy season this year has been the most severe in 50 years.

While the country has a network of dams and canals to contain the heavy rainfall, officials from the Royal Irrigation Department warn that several major dams are near their breaking point, with more torrential rain forecast in the coming weeks.

Bangkok has, so far, been spared the most severe of the floods. But the torrent of water has been heavy in the city’s Chao Phraya River.  

Num, a long boat operator on the river, says less that 100 kilometers to the north of Bangkok, floods have hit outlying communities and those outside protective flood walls.

"These days, Bangkok no problem; you go outside Bangkok to Ayutthaya or Saraburi [the water] is very, very high," said Num. "Many, many people are affected. Because the water very high inside out home. Some people not living go outside to the main road."

The floods in Thailand come as monsoon rains and storms in recent weeks have hit Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia and the Philippines. In the Philippines, the cost to infrastructure and agriculture is put at $154 million. In Pakistan, the World Food Program says floods have affected nearly 5.5 million people and destroyed 73 percent of the harvest, as well as livestock losses.

The U.N.'s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) in a statement called on governments to step up investments in disaster risk reduction to diminish the impact from seasonal flooding.

Samith Dharmasaroja, a former Meteorological Department director general, blames a lack of coordination between departments for worsening the impact of the flooding. Samith says authorities are not investing in long range weather forecasting to better manage the floods.

"If you use the long range forecast like other countries have done Thailand would be saved from the flood," said Samith. "Because you know exactly when the rainy season how much precipitation will fall on Thailand's territory so we know exactly how to keep the water in dam."

The Royal Irrigation Department says 11 dams are filled to, or beyond, capacity. Officials have ordered the release of water from dams in the northeastern provinces of Nakhon Ratchasima in anticipation of more heavy rainfall.

Samith says while Bangkok has been spared serious flooding it remains vulnerable, especially if waters are released from dams.

"Bangkok is in the situation, very dangerous situation," added Samith. "If they let go of an amount of water from the north and northeastern part of Thailand down south, Bangkok will get flood."

Meteorologists say the La Nina and El Nino climate patterns intensify the monsoon cycles that affect Thailand and other Asian/Pacific nations. But Danai Thaitukoo, a lecturer in urban ecology at Chulalongkorn University, says a key problem is a failure to adequately  prepare communities ahead of the flood season.

"We don't prepare," said Danai. "Totally unprepared; we all know we can expect that it's going to be a flood or its going to be a lot of water. I would say we're not really prepared for flood or any kind of natural disaster."

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has ordered an increase in relief operations as flood waters rise across the central plains.

In the provinces just north of Bangkok, officials say the inundation is the most severe in five decades. At the same time, the Meteorological Department has issued fresh warnings to people in the north and northeast to prepare for more heavy rainfall and flash floods in the coming days.