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Drainage test is fine; political fallout floods Bangkok

In the unlikely event that your house got flooded yesterday, don't get too excited. It was supposed to be just a "trial" inundation. It may have nothing to do with the "real flood", which may or may not materialise this year.

It was supposed to be a "simulation" of how Bangkok could flood if things get as bad as last year. But it was a different kind of simulation. It was real water and real waterways, not the normal kind of simulation that takes place in a lab - or a simulated klong.

Whatever the outcome of the trial, the first test since last year of the working relationship between the central government and Bangkok Governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra has produced some puzzling episodes. And it wasn't even a simulation. It's a real exchange of statements that more or less repeats last year's tense relations between the two.

I am not sure why they didn't sit down for a real talk before the government came out with the announcement that water would be released into the eastern and western parts of Bangkok yesterday and today to test the capital's capacity to drain water into the sea, which was a real mess last year.

The immediate reaction from City Hall was, to say the least, negative. No, the governor himself didn't call a press conference to offer his comments. It was his well-known, outspoken deputy, Teerachon Manomaiphibul, who promptly cast doubt on whether it was a wise move. He pointed out that some canals, especially Klong Lat Phrao and Klong Bangsue, haven't been cleaned up yet. If a huge amount of "real water" were flushed down from the northern suburbs on a trial run, residents on both sides would be hard hit for no good reason.

Why did the deputy governor single out the two canals? Due to some bureaucratic complexities, although the two canals are located in Bangkok, they don't come under the city's jurisdiction. They are under the responsibility of the Science and Technology Ministry which, incidentally, comes under Minister Plodprasob Suraswadi.

Now, the controversial minister also happens to chair the government's anti-flood panel. So, if he wants to test flood-containment measures through the capital, he should first make sure that the two huge canals under his care are cleared of all possible obstacles.

Once the verbal exchange was aired, Bangkokians were reminded of last year's spat between the central government and the city administration. And the worrying examples of mismanagement and conflict between government agencies immediately brought back some very bad memories.

Reporters were promptly summoned for a press conference, where they saw Deputy Premier Yongyuth Vichaidit and Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand shake hands for a photo-op, to declare that there is no conflict between the central government and city authority - only some "disagreement".

It was heartening indeed to also see Deputy Governor Teerachon present at the feelgood event. He very subtly stepped back to let his boss say what he himself had said a few days earlier: the Bangkok administration is "concerned" about the flood trial because of the lack of preparation on the part of the government.

The smiles were there but the substance of the respective statements was more revealing.

Deputy PM Yongyuth said: "I can assure you that there are no conflicts between us at all, but only concerns raised.

Governor Sukhumband responded: "I am not opposed to the government's plan to test the canal network's drainage capacity to the east and west of Bangkok. But I am concerned because of a weather forecast that heavy rain is expected across 60 per cent of Thailand. A storm will probably reach the country next week, at the time the drainage test is being carried out. The two big canals under the Ministry of Science and Technology have yet to be dredged properly to make them ready for the test."

But Minister Plodprasob wasn't there to listen to the governor's concern. Instead, he told reporters in a separate interview that Deputy Governor Teerachon has "told a lie" about high sea levels expected during the test this week. Everything, he said, had been well planned in advance. The dredging of Klong Lat Phrao, he insisted, was 50 per cent complete the canal was ready to receive water flows during the drainage test.

On the same day, Premier Yingluck Shinawatra presided at the opening of an exhibition on the government's water-management scheme entitled "Working hard towards water management for all people".

I am not sure whether the Bangkok governor was invited to that function. What a pity: The joint press conference should have been held there instead, with the PM, the science minister, and the governor and his deputy shaking hands and telling everyone concerned how their political battle won't affect plans to ensure Bangkok isn't flooded this year.

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