Wednesday, November 16, 2011


They’ve been of biblical proportion, the floods in Thailand, and they’re far from over. A friend here in Chiang Mai had saved newspaper clippings for me about the floods. They start in October, more than a month ago, and give snapshots of the hardships and horrors faced by millions, not hundreds, or thousands, but millions of people in central Thailand. Although the water is receding in places around the north and east of Bangkok, on the west side of the Chao Praya River there’s no sign of relief: the land is so low that it’s still below the river’s height.

Until I got to Bangkok I hadn’t understood what the floods were. I had in my mind a swollen river breaking out. But this 2011 flood of the century is far bigger than that.

My overnight stay at a small hotel near the airport gave me a first insight into the flooding. The hotel is in a small village, a few streets that run between a canal and a busy road. All the buildings were buttressed with sandbag walls; some were encircled with low cement walls reinforced with sandbags. Near the entranceways there’d be a stepped stack of sandbags, each layer topped with a plank. They were like sandbag stiles, a place to step up and over the buttressing.

Pumps churned monotonously, pulling water from under the ground into large flexible piping and out into the canal. The canal flowed swiftly and was within an inch of the edge. Water seeped up through cement in a few places. It was those pumps, and the seeping water, that straightened out my understanding of the flooding. It’s not that the river overflowed its banks (it did in places too of course) but that everywhere there was so much water in the ground that there was no way it could drain away.

Bangkok is built on a swamp and used to be laced with canals. The pressures of the growing city, and a lack of planning, and lots of greed, led to those canals being filled in and turned into roads. Hydrologists gave warnings, but no-one paid much heed.

With all thse canals in place, the water that saturated the ground would have had a place to drain to,. Those canals might occasionally have overflowed, but they’d have done the job of draining the water out to sea. Without them, the water could only end up on top of the ground, flooding every piece of low-lying land.

And so the call as I read the newspapers about all this, apart from for more help for victims, is still for more pumps. The water is being pumped out of the gorund into waterways including the Chao Praya, anything to get it moving toward the sea.

Looking out the airplane window as we slowly ascended I could see water everywhere, blurring the edges of the human geometries, from roads to canals to fields. It was one giant grey-beige reflecting surface, with occasioanl solid-ground interruptions: rooftops, a raised highway ramp, power far as the eye could see to the north. As we crossed the Chao Praya the picture grew even more dire. You couldn’t tell where the riverbanks had been on the west side; the river water just flowed right over the land. There was stillness, not the movement of small-ant-sized cars and people down below that is the usual sight out the window as you fly over Bangkok.

The newspaper clippings give the on-the-ground and in-the-water close-up view day by day and it’s shocking in places. Yes, there are kids having fun in boats, and the army is looking friendly and helpful as it rescues people and animals, but the reality is that houses and small businesses are wrecked, many of them irreparably, and people have been exposed to unknown toxic chemicals that were washed out of factories upstream as the waters rose. The death toll is at around 600 now.

Thai manufacturing and exports have taken a hit and that will go on. A lot of the rice crop, estimates are 40%, in the central regions has been lost to the floods. (In October-November the rice crop is drying out and ripening and then gets harvested; with inundated fields the plants rot, and/or fail to ripen, and of course no machinery, and often not even human harvesters, can get on the fields to harvest what grain remains.)

The biggest hit may be to people’s mental health. When you see your home wrecked by water and are helpless, and when the situation goes on and on, drearily, and when it puts your children at risk of disease, and threatens you with financial disaster, I imagine that people crumble. Not now, in mid-crisis, but once the intense time is over. it takes energy and optimism to rebuild and move forward. Thais are resilient, they’ve ived through social and political and economic disasters and upheavals, and come to laugh about them, but this huge calamity is going to exact more pain before it’s over.

Meantime, up here in Chiang Mai, where there was some flooding near the river in September because of heavy rains, everyone is now dry and gateful to be.

As I rode along a small road near the river yesterday, I was dodging water grates every ten metres or so, and pedalling past houses built up on stilts, all a reminder that water, and flooding, and monsoon deluges, are part of life in Thailand, giving life to people and rice and this rich culture, and from time to time, as if to embody the Buddhist idea of impermanence, wreaking havoc in unimaginable ways.

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