Thailand Seeks Flood Prevention Plan as Bangkok Clean-Up Operation Continues
Source: The Guardian
By Jonathan Watts, The Guardian
Now the car parks have been cleared of crocodiles and the store room emptied of cobras, the managers at one of Thailand's biggest electronics companies have begun reclaiming their factory from Bangkok's worst flood in a century and wondering what more they can do to prevent the climate wreaking similar havoc in the future.
Cleaners scrub the floor with chemical cleaning agents, workers rip mouldy tiles from the ceilings and engineers try to salvage what equipment they can at the Hana Microelectronics factory.
Production is expected to resume any day. But it will not be business as usual for many months, if ever. Looming over this clean-up operation – like countless others in homes, businesses and government offices in the Thai capital – is a concern that such disasters will strike with more frequency in the future unless the human flaws and climate risks are addressed more seriously.
A Toshiba factory partially-submerged at Bangkadi Industrial Park, Thailand, October, 2011. Credit: khaosod/flickr
"The big question from our customers is: 'Will it flood again?'" said Worawit Sriburanasorn, a senior manager at Hana who fought the waters with diesel pumps and protective walls.
It is a question on many minds as Thai policymakers consider issues that are likely to affect other countries in the future: whether to build stronger defences, move to higher ground or otherwise adapt to the risks posed by political mismanagement and a changing climate.
"We are on the frontline of climate change. As we see rising temperatures, more rain and a higher sea level, Bangkok will be very vulnerable," said Seree Supratid, a professor at Rangsit University and government adviser.
"In the talks in Cancun and Durban, they just talk about reducing greenhouse gases, but the disasters are already here. We should shift the emphasis from mitigation to adaptation."
Almost five months have passed since the flooding began in the northern hills of Thailand and then spread slowly down through the central plains to inundate swaths of Bangkok, killing more than 500 people, affecting 12 million others and disrupting business at some of the planet's biggest industrial parks. The World Bank estimates the damage at 1.4tn baht (£29bn), making it one of the costliest disasters in human history.
The stories from the flood are still emerging. Among the most dramatic is that of Hana Microelectronics, which is a key supplier of sensors and chips for Apple's iPhone and also makes widgets, smart-card readers and touch pads for Samsung, Texas Instruments and Motorola.
When its Ayutthaya plant was deluged, the discovery of two crocodiles in the car park and a cobra in a store room disconcerted the staff, but the potential disruption to production caused global consternation. Apple was so worried that it offered helicopters to airlift the 100m chips inside.
The government dispatched the Thai navy to ferry 450 pieces of heavy machinery to an alternative factory so that manufacturing could resume. Even so, there was a gap of about two weeks.
Richard Han, the chief executive officer, estimated the damage to his plants and equipment at more than $30m (£19m). Lost business could cost three times as much again.
"Most of my customers will come back but they won't bring all their business back," he said. He too will move some production to an expanded operation in China to hedge against future floods.
"One thing we know is that unprecedented weather events are now happening on a regular basis. Add to that gross mismanagement and a lack of infrastructure and it is clear that the government are going to have to prepare better," he said. "My big worry is that insurers may not accept flood insurance any more. That could be a trigger for the Thai government to step in. If not, we'd have to build up reserves and self insure."
Elsewhere, several districts were still underwater as the end of the year approached. Near Don Muang airport, the motorway resembled a river with trucks, buses and jeeps leaving a wake behind them as they slowly navigated through the water.
Members of Thai rescue teams evacuate factory workers on boats at Bangkadi Industrial Park in Pathum Thani province. Credit: khaosod/flickr
On Buddhamonthon Road in West Bangkok, people were camping on bridges with their belongings stacked under tarpaulin. Some had lost everything. Uthai Muangpor was wading in a waist-deep pool that had once been the hospital car park where she ran a grilled banana kiosk. "I'm looking for my stove and pans," she said. "When the flood come, everything I owned floated away. I didn't have any valuables. But now even my clothes and mattress are gone."
The extent to which climate change is to blame is hard to quantify. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says Bangkok is one of the most vulnerable cities in the world because it sits on a flood plain and has been periodically inundated for centuries. It also suffers from severe subsidence and is at long-term risk from rising sea levels.
Scientists estimate that for each degree of warming, the amount of moisture in the air increases by 7%. This year is on course to be the wettest on record, according to the Met Office, which says 1,822mm of rain fell in the first nine months.
But even the most ardent campaigners for climate action acknowledge that the government must take the bulk of the responsibility. "The blame for the floods is 30% with nature and 70% with the mismanagement of the authorities," said Srisuwan Janya, a lawyer and founder of the Stop Global Warming Association. "The government responded too slowly and made errors. It need not have been this bad."
He said upstream dams did not release water early enough in the monsoon season so they had insufficient capacity to contain the huge volumes of rainwater that fell later. One of the three main flood channels running from the north to the south was shut off, adding to the pressure on the remaining two. As the water surged southward, Bangkok found itself more vulnerable than in the past because hundreds of its canals have been blocked up over decades of poorly regulated development. Political leaders then made matters worse by placing too high a priority on the city centre, which was kept dry at the expense of deeper water elsewhere.
The erratic climate may have confused decision makers.
At the start of the year, the primary concern was drought because the dry season in 2010 had been unusually severe. As a result, dam managers retained water in upstream reservoirs even after the first big rainfall in March, which was three times more than the average in northern Thailand. Faced by these extremes, it was difficult for dam managers to make judgments based on previous weather patterns. This is a key lesson of the flood.
"The difficulty of projecting droughts and floods will increase for sure," said Gernot Laganda, a climate specialist at the United Nations Development Program office in Bangkok. "We cannot rely on historic experience in managing these hazards. The world is not the same any more. Just because this is a once-in-a-century flood, we shouldn't assume that there won't be another like it for 100 years."
Faced by an increasingly "vicious interplay of prolonged droughts and fiercer bursts of rain", Laganda says it will be important to build strong monitoring systems and to start building climate flexible systems. Instead of building high walls and river defences today, he says it makes more sense to strengthen the foundations of existing structures so they can be raised as and when risks become more apparent.
The Bangkok governor, Sukhumbhand Paribatra, said the city needed to learn from the disaster. "It's a wake up call. We need to take a hard look at the problems that may arise from climate change and take a long-term perspective on how to deal with them." He has proposed more investment in flood mitigation and prevention, namely construction of more retention ponds, drainage tunnels and pumping stations. "It will cost a lot of money. But I don't think there is any other way unless we change our conceptual approach and allow some areas to be flooded during the flood season."
While a warming planet is part of the backdrop, engineers fear that it may be a distraction from the more pressing concerns of urban planning, erosion and sedimentation.
A debate is under way. Surajit Chirawate, who sits on the senate environment committee, says the government is making a mistake by relying on walls to deal with future floods. He believes Bangkok should be downsized and government offices should be relocated to higher ground. "People should not fight with the water. They should let it through. That is how we dealt with floods in the past. That is why Bangkok has so many canals. But now rich city dwellers are too distant from nature. What they are doing with their flood protection walls is actually increasing the level of the water."
Tension rose along with the water. Amid rumours that powerful politicians protected their own constituencies at the expense of neighbouring districts, several deluged communities turned to protest.
The most dramatic demonstration occurred at Yucharoen village near Don Mueng airport, where local residents furiously tore down a wall of sandbags.
"I was angry because the government did not help us until we protested," said Pattanan Thongsawad, who was among the demonstrators. "I wasn't thinking about fairness. I was only thinking about the people who were suffering."
A water mark is still visible in every home in the neighbourhood. Thongsawad said the village must prepare for similar disasters. "We want more concrete walls all the way around our community. That is the only way I'll feel secure. There will be more rain and more floods and we cannot rely on the government to deal with them."
With politics and climate both looking increasingly unpredictable, many now want more help but do not expect it.
"If it comes again, there is nothing we can do," said Sriburanasorn of Hana. "If every factory had to build its own flood defences, we wouldn't be able to afford to stay in business. The government must do it do restore confidence … I never want to go through that again."
Jonathan Watts is a Guardian Asian environment correspondent. Reprinted with permission.