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Floods Dampen Thai Adaptation Plans

BANGKOK, Sep 16 2012 (IPS) - Thailand’s flood-management blueprint  received a jolt when the dykes in Sukhothai were breached by the rain-swollen Yom river last week, submerging large stretches of the former royal capital.Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra toured the flood-damaged historic city 430 km north of Bangkok, reliving relief operations that were mounted last year when the central plains, including the capital, were hit by the worst floods in the country’s history.

The barriers designed to prevent the river overflowing were in need of repair, but this “wasn’t done after last year’s flood,” science and technology minister Plodprasop Suraswadi told a local radio station.

While the scale of the damage from last week’s floods is marginal when compared with last year’s historic disaster, the timing of this latest threat – which could also affect other towns and cities downstream from Sukhothai – puts the one-year-old Yingluck administration in a spot.

After all, it comes barely two weeks after the government unveiled plans about its flood management strategy for the country that conveyed a “new attitude towards coping with floods in urban areas.”

The 11.5-billion-dollar flood management plans were conceived to avoid the mistakes from the past, aiming to “go beyond just defending urban centres from floods,” says Anond Snidvongs, a Thai flood expert. “The main principle in the plan is to include the need to live with the impacts of climate change.”

Factored into these calculations is the new use for the network of rivers and canals that have served as waterways for central regions in this kingdom.

“Water management in the past was geared to make sure that rice farmers got a steady supply of water during the dry season,” said Anond, director of the Southeast Asia regional centre for the Global Change System for Analysis, Research and Training, based in Bangkok. “Now the policy has changed to approach water management to have dual purposes – to deal with flood management also.”

Such a progressive step is in keeping with the “long-term climate change adaptation strategies” that countries must explore, the Thai expert told IPS. “This is the future of water-management infrastructure.”

The tentative steps Thailand is taking following last year’s natural disaster — which claimed 815 lives, affected over 13 million people and dealt an economic blow worth 45 billion dollars – helps to amplify a message being drummed up by the Asian Development Bank (AsDB).

In August, the Manila-based AsDB released a report that sounded a warning: “Rising urban populations mean that over 400 million people in Asian cities may be at risk of coastal flooding and roughly 350 million at risk of inland flooding by 2025.” “Unless managed properly, these trends could lead to widespread environmental degradation and declining standards of living.”

Cities like Bangkok, Dhaka, Ho Chi Minh City and Tianjin are at high risks of both inland and coastal flooding, revealed ‘Green Urbanisation in Asia: Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2012’. “Urbanisation increases vulnerability because life and assets losses are much larger in cities than in the countryside when a disaster strikes.”

Many Asian cities have been built on the deltas of major rivers, so “it is not surprising that many Asian cities are flood prone,” it noted. “But increased flooding induced by climate change may well push these cities’ infrastructure beyond their current capacities, as occurred in Bangkok in late 2011.”

Thailand’s experience with last year’s floods and its flood-management plans are being scrutinised in the region for the lessons it offers.

“It will be difficult if not impossible to disaster-proof cities,” says Jerry Velasquez, senior regional coordinator at the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction for Asia and the Pacific (UNISDR). “However, reducing the impacts of disasters in cities would be possible,” Velasquez told IPS.

Asian cities are more vulnerable to greater damage from floods due to the pattern of economic growth, Velasquez said, pointing to the Chao Phraya river’s basin, which drains in Bangkok, but covers 30 percent of Thailand’s land areas and is where 40 percent of the population live.

“It is also where 66 percent of the total GDP is generated and where 78 percent of the people work,” Velasquez said. “This means that development patterns have set up Bangkok to be extremely exposed economically to flood disaster.”

The picture across Asia is no different when it comes to highly exposed cities, states UNISDR, given the economic loss suffered across the region from disasters that struck in 2011 – 294 billion dollars.

But, despite threats posed by extreme and erratic weather patterns, drafting and implementing a flood-management programme remains a journey through uncharted waters – as the Thai government discovered last week.

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