from Asia Unbound

Thailand’s Flood Defenses to Fail Again?

September 13, 2012

Thailand's prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra visits Sam Wa canal to check on the drainage system as the country prepares for rainy season in the suburb of Bangkok August 17, 2012.
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Last year, flooding in Thailand breached defenses across the country, ruining many of the industrial estates on the outskirts of Bangkok, bringing the capital to a halt, and resulting in billions of dollars in damage and decisions by several major electronics components manufacturers to either abandon Thailand operations or open new operations to build disc drives and other parts in countries safer from flooding. Last year’s flooding was also horrible for the public image of the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, which appeared to be slow to respond, as compared to the army, which utilized the flooding, and its rapid response, to somewhat rehabilitate its image in the minds of many Thais after the army’s killing of at least ninety protestors in the streets of Bangkok in spring 2010.

Given the damage done by last year’s floods to the Thai economy, to the government’s legitimacy, to people’s health, and to the country’s long-term attractiveness to investors, one might think that this year Bangkok would be better prepared for flooding. After all, though some meteorologists attributed last year’s floods to a once-in-decades event, the fact is that Thailand is one of the countries in Asia most exposed to negative impacts from climate change: Bangkok is built on swampy, reclaimed ground, and sinks into the water more and more every year. It is easily flooded, and even in “good” monsoon seasons water often accumulates in the lowest parts of the city.

But it does not appear that the Thai government has adequately prepared for this year’s looming floods either. Flooding has already affected up to one quarter of the country’s provinces, according to a recent Reuters report, and thousands of people have fled their homes in parts of the north.  In the areas just outside Bangkok, where flooding was heavy last year, this year construction of new barriers, water diversion devices, and other protection has proceeded far too slowly, leaving many suburbs nearly as exposed as last year. In areas home to a large percentage of foreign companies, such as some outside Ayutthaya, the foreign firms, not wanting to repeat last year’s experience of shutting down production or losing valuable models, have constructed their own defenses. But in other northern and eastern suburbs of the capital, no such defenses are in sight, and by now, September, it is probably too late to set up significant barriers. In many areas, Thais can only hope that the rains are not as severe as last year.