Background to the 2011 Bangkok floods

By Taylor Reed

Students evacuated from Rangsit University

Students evacuated from Rangsit University

Although the water has largely retreated, Thailand is still struggling to make an assessment of the flooding situation which so devastated large swathes of the nation.

Normalcy has returned to many parts of the capital; many of its central districts including Sukhumvit, Silom, Siam, Rachethewi were spared completely, whilst historical and culturally important areas around the Grand Palace and the country’s most famous temples only dealt with brief periods of overflow from the Chao Phraya River.

But other locations were not so lucky and some will continue to face problems for weeks.

North Bangkok’s Don Muang district saw floodwaters of well over a metre seep in during early November, driving thousands of people from their homes and inundating the city’s secondary airport. Nok Air and other carriers operating at the domestic-only facility moved operations temporarily to the unaffected Suvarnabumhi International Airport, and the Airports Authority of Thailand (AOT) has said, although Don Muang Airport was reportedly dry in December, that it will not be reopened until well into 2012.

And while dozens of other city districts, particularly in Western Bangkok – aka the Thon Buri side of the river – have dealt similarly high water levels and widespread logistical problems, the damage suffered by numerous provinces north of Bangkok, in the Chao Phraya Basin, over the past two months has been all but forgotten.

Flooding began in late July in the country’s northernmost provinces, when increasing monsoonal rains coincided with the arrival of heavy bands of torrential downpours left over from Tropical Storm Nock-ten’s arrival in Vietnam. By early August, more than a dozen people had been killed in Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Uttaradit and other northern provinces.

As floodwaters moved southward, increasing seasonal monsoon rains worsened the situation for dozens of low-lying central areas through August and September. Nakhon Sawan was among the hardest hit, as its final defence barrier came crashing down on 13 October, giving way to up to two metres of floodwaters in its largest city.

Al-Jazeera report on Bangkok Floods

Similarly, Thailand’s historical treasure of Ayutthaya – a former capital and the home of dozens of centuries-old cultural sites – once again felt the brunt of the flood, causing damage to some ancient attractions that some experts say is irreparable. More on Ayutthaya.

Moreover, hundreds of warehouses, assembly plants and other economically crucial facilities in the area were quickly engulfed, as were several of Thailand’s biggest and most prestigious academic institutions such as Thammassat and Rangsit universities in Pathum Thani province south of Ayutthaya.

And then came ‘the big wait’, along with a storm of political finger-pointing, fumbled announcements and failed salvage attempts that proved to be more severe than any of the prolonged monsoonal thunderstorms that gave birth to the crisis in the first place.

As authorities realised that Bangkok, Thailand’s long-reigning economic, political and cultural mecca, was the last obstacle between more than 16 billion cubic metres of floodwater and the Gulf of Thailand, widespread preparations and planning began to protect the country’s most treasured urban gems.

However, as Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and the Flood Relief Operations Command (FROC) would quickly learn, holding off the power of nature is difficult, expensive, controversial and most of all, unpredictable.

Protecting Bangkok from flooding involves managing water levels via its extensive system of dykes, canals and floodgates, but the process also means leaving floodwaters to remain in surrounding areas such as Ayutthaya, Samut Prakarn, Nonthaburi and Pathum Thani. And while the capital has seen significant flooding within its borders several times over the last century, officials have always worked to protect it whilst leaving its surrounding residents in despair.

However, with unprecedented water levels in the great flood of 2011, authorities prolonged flooding longer than ever before in many of these commonly affected areas in the effort of sparing central Bangkok once more. This sparked anger and even action from many residents, as well as a standoff between BMA head Sukhumbhand Paripatra and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thai people became very resourceful in the floods!

Thai people became very resourceful in the floods!

And whilst thousands Thais have volunteered with relief efforts and sandbagging throughout the ordeal, others have responded differently. The first week of November saw angry residents in an inundated village near the Lad Phrao district break down a temporary barrier that had put up by Sukhumbhand and the BMA. The move released a metre of floodwater into an adjacent village that had been previously bone dry. In response, the BMA later agreed to bring in a pair of additional pumps to bring relief to the village and to ensure its flood management plans would remain intact without interference from frustrated residents.

But throughout the flooding, Thais, tourists and the international community alike saw planning, prediction and management efforts change from panicked to assured and outlandish to conservative on a day-to-day basis. More on safety.

In early November, Yingluck and the FROC finally ‘confirmed’ that all of Bangkok would indeed be underwater at some point, citing that management efforts were failing. Several days later, Sukhumbhand and Yingluck reneged and said the core of Bangkok was safe. And authorities still cannot agree on whether or not the effort dubbed the ‘big bag barrier’ was effective, which involved the placement of several kilometres of giant sandbags along a northern Bangkok roadway to force floodwaters away from the centre of the capital.

And at one point authorities had even considered a bizarre and controversial plan to utilise roadways in and around Bangkok as a means to deliver water to the sea faster than the mere 500 million cubic-metres-per-day trickle that the Metropolitan Waterworks Authority’s (MWA) canal system could handle.

Meanwhile, despite the lifting of travel advisories by numerous governments, tourism numbers are reportedly far lower than normal as the country’s all-important high season approaches. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), arrival figures for November were down a whopping 18 per cent from those seen in 2010. Tourism comprises roughly six per cent of Thailand’s economy.

And massive piles of rubbish have accumulated and remain in numerous areas surrounding Bangkok, some of which had been gathered and deposited by the flood itself, whilst some have simply accumulated due to cancelled collection services as a result of flood-induced inaccessibility. More on history.

Moreover, with all of that refuse, along with industrial waste, farmland runoff and floating animal carcasses, residents are continually warned to avoid contact with floodwaters to prevent disease. Similarly, a chief marine scientist from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University warned in a mid-November AFP article that the increasing presence of heavily polluted and salt-free flood runoff in the Gulf of Thailand could have serious implications on marine life.

But despite the loss of more than 600 lives, a continued lack of clarity, millions of destroyed homes and economic damages said to have exceeded 1.3 trillion baht, it seems that a sense of relief is slowly growing in Thailand as fewer and fewer areas remain inundated with each passing day. On Saturday, December 10, the Prime Minister reassured during her weekly radio and TV programme that all areas will be fully dry by the end of the year.

And during an emotional and well-received moment on December 5, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej set the stage for what is sure to be months, if not years, of recovery by asking during his annual birthday speech that all Thais to put aside political quarrels to simply help each other with recovery efforts wherever possible.

This cut-and-dry advice could very well prove to be the most effective offered throughout the crisis. 

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