Mixed rating for PM's battle to prevent a repeat of last year's flood crisis

national August 06, 2012 00:00

By Pongphon Sarnsamak
The Nation

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Water experts have expressed mixed views about Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's leadership in managing water and flood prevention efforts over the past year. But they said she always monitored and paid attention to details of alleviation work.

“Even I forgive her for her mistakes but I think she did not pass the examination and has to repeat a class,” Suwat Chaopricha, a president of the Engineering Institute of Thailand, told The Nation.

Last year’s severe flood, which claimed over 800 lives and ravaged provinces in the north and central regions, was the first natural disaster the novice political leader had to face after her Pheu Thai Party won the general election a year ago.

When reporters asked her about the government’s plan to mitigate the impact from massive floodwater, she always responded “I can handle it”.

The government set up a Flood Relief Operations Centre (FROC) chaired by Pol Gen Pracha Promnok and used Don Mueang Airport as a “war room” to counter the crisis. But this had to be moved to the Energy Complex or the new PTT building on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road after Don Mueang Airport was submerged by water nearly one metre deep.

Hundreds of thousands of giant sandbags, water pumps, and soil barriers were used to fight the flood and protect the most important economic areas such as central Bangkok.

Yingluck also set up the Strategic Committee for Water Resource Management (SCWRM) to draw a plan and work on ideas from water experts to try to prevent a repeat of the disaster, said to have cost the country tens of billions of dollars in economic damage. Cabinet later appointed another panel, the Water and Flood Management Committee, chaired by Science and Technology Minister Plodprasob Surassawadee, to implement both short and longterm plans based on the strategic committee’s recommendation.

But veteran water expert Prasert Povichien, with the Thai Hydra Association, is one who feels that members of the state committee weren’t properly qualified.

“They [committee members] are not water experts,” he said.

“While she has no knowledge about water and flood management she should know how to put the right people in the right job. Water experts let politicians manage the plan, instead of water experts and engineers being allowed to help her,” he said.

The government, through these two committees, has developed short and longterm plans to prevent a repeat of last year’s flood.

For the shortterm plan, the focus has been on maintaining existing prevention infrastructure – dredging shallow canals and rivers, repairing water gates, and raising roads. But Prasert said there had been too much construction for the shortterm plan.

Suwat was optimistic, but fears the longterm plan lacks feasibility study to gauge overall risk and impact from construction, plus environmental assessment.

The longerterm plan, worth Bt350 billion, has focused on permanent construction such as floodways, water diversion and dams. But Prasert, who has over 50 years’ water management experience, suggested Yingluck should pay more attention to managing water retention levels in two main dams and maintaining drainage systems.

Meanwhile, Suwat said construction in the longterm plan would not be able to be implemented to resolve flood woes as it lacked people's participation and an environmental report required by the Constitution.

But Sutat Weesakul, a water management expert at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) gave the PM 7 points out of 10 for leadership during the crisis. “Being fair to her, last year’s flood was the first time for her and she had known nothing about floods but she followed up the plan every week and tried to learn the situation,” he said.

The PM was busy over the past year. If she went abroad she always called waterrelated agencies for summaries on the situation and followed up on plans.

Reporters always had been denied by high level officials of water and flood agencies to make an appointment with them for special interview as they did not have time to sit down and give comment to media. “I am so sorry I have to postpone my appointment with you because Prime Minister called me to meet her again,” Lertwiroj Kowatthana, directorgeneral of the department, told The Nation via his mobile phone.

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