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Development Helps Fuel Southeast Asian Flooding

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In some parts of Southeast Asia the floodwaters just keep coming, inundating fields and towns, and leaving behind death and destruction. But, the problems could have been worse.

It is a scene that has become all too common in Bangkok - residents slogging through knee-deep water. In some parts of the Thai capital, tensions boil over.

Even as Bangkok residents try to carry on, there is the realization things could be much worse.  

Mark Bartolini, a disaster expert with the U.S. Agency for International Development, says the slow-moving floodwaters in Thailand gave people time to prepare and reduce the damage. That is not always the case.

“The fact is that development gains can be lost overnight," he said.  "Years and years of billions of dollars being spent on countries and governments as well, in terms of their investments.”

Bartolini says Thailand and other countries have proven to be resilient, but there are still concerns.

“Whenever you are in low-lying, flood-prone areas and the populations grow and grow, you’re bound to have problems periodically," he said.  "And again with climate change we’re seeing more and more of this.”

“The U.S. is giving more than $2.7 million in aid to help Southeast Asia recover from the floods.  But it is also trying to share something more - lessons from its own catastrophe.”

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed the U.S. Gulf Coast, flooding New Orleans, sending desperate residents to their rooftops to await rescue.

U.S. officials are working with officials from across Southeast Asia to improve disaster preparation and communication.

MIT urban planning expert Balakrishnan Rajagopal says that is not enough.

“Cities have to think very hard about how they grow, the kind of technology that they use when they grow and they in which they anticipate problems and take measures to prevent those problems from becoming a crisis,” he said.

For instance, Rajagopal says, the use of concrete to in growing cities like Bangkok contributes to floods by paving over natural drainage systems.

For now, many Thais are just trying to hang on, waiting for the water to recede.


Jeff Seldin

Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters covering a wide variety of subjects, from the nature of the growing terror threat in Northern Africa to China’s crackdown on Tibet and the struggle over immigration reform in the United States. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

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