Floods in the old days were much more fun

opinion October 29, 2011 00:00

By David Lyman

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How did we deal with the floods in the "old days"?


Well, for the most part Bangkokians drove or waded through them. The floods were usually localised and with some exceptions, were drained through Bangkok’s then many functioning and clear klongs (canals) into the Chao Phraya River and thence to the sea and were gone in a matter of days. As the heavy rains from monsoons and typhoons fell and the tides became high, filling the streets with water, awaiting the rains to stop and tides to subside, kids swam and played in the water. The population accepted the floods as inevitable and a nuisance, though not too disruptive. In a manner of speaking, they were fun times, full of opportunities to complain, to laugh, were good gambits for conversation. After all, floods and droughts have been a way of life for centuries in Thailand.  The causes and cures thereof were rarely addressed with any sustained interest.
When in the 1950s my family was looking for a change of residence from Krung Kasem Road to a place nearer to my father’s office on Hong Kong Bank Lane, off New Road, my father refused to move to Sukhumvit Road because the sois leading off Sukhumvit and Rama IV roads weren’t paved. In the rainy season these sois were seas of mud. So we ended up on Soi Polo, near the Polo Club, for 32 years until both my parents had passed on.
Some of the low-lying parts of Bangkok, with the city already built on a flood plain, especially in the eastern suburbs, in the 1960s and 1970s and on into the 1980s, were quickly inundated and remained underwater for many weeks. The water table there was being depleted by drawing fresh water from some 14,000 artesian wells. The area was measured as sinking at about the same rate that a child grows. After the initial calamity of a new flood, the suburbs’ plight was not really deemed newsworthy.
And so was then born the concept of protecting Bangkok at the expense of sacrificing the surrounding provinces to absorb the floodwaters.
Where the floods hit upcountry – that’s any direction away from Bangkok – that was agricultural land and the flooded-out farmers were essentially ignored and suffered usually stoically. Farmers whose crops were devastated were given token compensation by the authorities. Not fair, of course, but the governments of the day were not really disaster prevention or mitigation conscious. Lip service was paid, yes, after the fact and until memories faded. 
I have a March 1994 UNDP and Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) report prepared by the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre, which then identified some three dozen laws, nine ministries, 20 departments and 10 committees that were tasked to deal with disaster management in the Kingdom. This meant, obviously, that “disaster management” was then, and remains today, an oxymoron. In the intervening 18 years to the present, little has changed except that there are now more laws and more assigned agencies and more uninformed and unqualified interfering politicians involved.
I recall reading another report that focused on the management of the Chao Phraya River – at least some 40 different government units had varying degrees of jurisdiction and responsibility for what happened on and to the river. Hence no one was in charge and no one was responsible.
I’m probably being cynical, but I have a feeling that there are file rooms full of studies on disaster management risks, policies, strategies, structures and coordination that were commissioned but the recommendations embodied therein were not implemented with any sincerity or sustainability. Too bad, as I also suspect that there are many fine people assigned to concerned agencies who have long been frustrated by lack of commitment and political will to make the system work effectively and efficiently.
One of my secretaries once told me long ago that Thais are not known for being good planners but they are fabulous at coping. Experience has proven the validity of this axiom. But the trend today by the politicians is really neither, rather being addressed to maintaining an untarnished image of Thailand in the rest of the world.
The scale, scope and volume of this year’s deluge far exceed the floods of the past. The damages sustained during the past floods pale in comparison to the calamity of this current event. And the floods of today are far from over. They have so far covered about a third of the country and are still flowing south towards the sea. I won’t discuss the ever-evolving extent of the current floods, which are well reported by the local and international press.
David Lyman is CEO of the law firm Tilleke & Gibbons.