It is always amazing to see Thailand featured on CNN World One news report, but if Thailand is featured, it is never for a good reason. CNN estimates that 40% of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia are under water. And some of those areas have been flooded continually for over two months. As the woman who does the weather report has tried to explain, it is not the rain that is falling now that is the problem. It is the rain that has already fallen. You see, we had no “Hot Season” this year. It rained all the way through the “Hot Season,” so when the “Rainy Season” began, Thailand’s lakes, rivers and reservoirs were already full. We then had a “normal” rainy season with a few named storms, bringing us to the brink of disaster. Then, late in the season (in September), we had several named storms that hit the Philippines and then headed straight into Vietnam and across Cambodia and Laos into Thailand. At that point, it only took one night of really heavy rain to create the flood in Chiang Mai. The run-off coming down from the mountains, combined with water released from the overflowing reservoirs, caused the worst flood in a decade. But, we now consider ourselves blessed, for we were spared the disaster that has been unfolding to the south of us over the past two weeks.
Chiang Mai (where we live in Northwest Thailand) expereienced its worst flood in a decade on September 28, 2011. And not even the “Golden Arches” were spared, as the photo shows. Fortunately for us, the weather pattern took the next storms from the east to south of us into the beautiful central plain of Thailand that is the “rice basket” of Thailand. But, unfortunately for those in that central plain, this was just at the time when the run-off from several rivers converged on the central plain, along with water released from several reservoirs upstream to prevent the failure of dams that were at critical pressure, and monsoon storms from the Andaman Sea that is west of Thailand. So, full rivers, water released from the reservoirs, heavy rainfall, monsoons, and named storms have all combined to give the lush river valley in the center of Thailand its worst floods in anyone’s memory (80 to 100 years).
And all of this water is converging on Bangkok, a city of 12 million people which is known as the Venice of the East. Most of Bangkok is below sea level and, just as the waters arrive in Bangkok this weekend, they also expect higher tides than normal. Over the past few decades, Bangkok, which was once a city of canals that served to drain the water in the “Rainy Season”, has filled in those canals to build skyscrapers and roads. So, the water coming into Bangkok from the north has nowhere to go if the Chao Phraya River cannot hold it all. No one knows what will happen in the next few days.
There is no way to evacuate a city of 12 million people when all the land around that city is already flooded. Highways are cut off. Trains cannot move. Buses cannot travel. Only the wealthy can afford to fly out. In the past few weeks, many people from cities north of Bangkok evacuated into Bangkok before the roads were cut off, believing that it was a safer place to be. This family used an elephant (normally for tourists only) to help when they could not use the family car. Even patients in hospitals in the flooded areas have been evacuated to hospitals in Bangkok. But, if the dikes, dams and other preventative measures taken in Bangkok fail to contain the flood waters, then Bangkok will have to deal with all the refugees that have sought shelter there, as well as its own population.
And, if the dikes and flood walls fail, the result is worse than normal flooding. In the ancient capital city of Ayutthaya (north of Bangkok), the dikes around the city failed and, within minutes, people’s houses in the city were flooded to the second floor. Children, the elderly and disabled are at a disadvantage and have often been caught unprepared. These are many of those who have died in these floods. There are no easy answers. Key routes within Bangkok are known to be flood-prone and, if they are flooded, emergency services will be cut off. If neighborhoods flood and officials cut off the electricity for safety, people who are using sand bags and pumps to keep the water out of their property will find that their pumps no longer work. Food needing refrigeration will spoil. The city will be unable to provide clean water. Cut off from food and clean water, people will experience significant health problems. Those who need regular medication (insulin, cardiac medication, etc.) to live may not be able to obtain any for several days. So far, more than 750,000 homes have been destroyed and 280 people have lost their lives in this crisis. The cost to the nation is estimated to be ฿30 billion (Thai baht) in damages and ฿190 billion in lost revenue.
The list of goes on and on. And then, after this immediate crisis passes, remember that Thailand is also losing this year’s rice crop – Thailand’s staple food and its major export – in this flood. And there will be a long recovery time in the midst of a bad global economy. Thailand lost a lot in the 2004 tsunami, but this disaster is turning out to be much worse than that, for it has touched the lives of everyone in the country. Everyone knows someone – or is related to someone – who is in the flooded areas. Please pray for the people of Thailand and all of Southeast Asia.