Record rainfall puts Thailand’s flood resilience to the test

Riders use a road flooded by an overflowing lake on Ko Samui, Thailand, Jan. 5, 2017. (Credit: AP Photo/Adam Schreck)

Thailand’s disaster resilience is being put to the test as unseasonably heavy rains continue to batter southern Thailand since the New Year, submerging thousands of villages in flood waters and affecting more than 1 million people with 21 dead so far, according to the U.N. and local media reports.

The “severe flooding is because of the worst rainfall in more than 30 years,” Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha told reporters today, according to Agence France-Presse, and “Thailand must prepare to handle these problems” in the face of climate change.

More than 330,300 households in 13 provinces have been affected and at least 1,500 schools have been damaged. Water is “roof-high” in some areas, Thailand’s interior ministry said, according to BBC, and the main airport Meteorological Department warns that rains are expected to persist until Tuesday, with waves measuring 2 to 3 meters high (6 to 10 feet) on the coast.

This is the second bout of flooding to hit the country in what would normally be a three-month period of cool, dry weather starting late November. Last month, another flood killed dozens and affected half a million people in the southern region. The unusual weather is challenging Thailand’s resilience.

Initially, the Interior Ministry’s Permanent Secretary Grisada Boonrach called the floods “manageable,” the Bangkok Post reported on Jan. 4. He said he was “confident that shelters for flood victims were not necessary for the time being.”

Three days later, the government’s news bureau reported that the prime minister is “worried” about the heavy flooding and dispatched troops and relief teams to evacuate victims. They have also set up shelters since.

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According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the resident coordinator has sent a letter offering support to the Interior Ministry’s Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM), but otherwise, reports of outside relief have been scarce. Instead, the military government is leading relief efforts – as it has since the devastating floods of 2011 – in a deliberate move to put a friendly face on the formidable political force.

The widespread floods of 2011 traumatized Thailand, displacing thousands and killing more than 900 people. Some villages sat in stagnant flood water for up to five months, and what little infrastructure existed in poor communities was completely wiped out. The cost of damages and losses totaled 1.43 trillion Thai baht ($46.5 billion) and the region’s second-largest economy’s growth rate plummeted to just 0.1 percent.

In the years following, efforts focused largely on building up Thailand’s resilience to extreme weather, which will continue to be exacerbated by climate change. Road and water infrastructure has been upgraded, alternate means of transportation have been set up and cooperation within communities has been improved for faster and more effective response.

Although the recent floods are not as severe as in 2011, the improvements can still be felt. According to the Bangkok Post, the Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking estimates the cost at around 10 billion baht ($280 million), not to exceed 15 billion baht ($420 million). It also expects the floods to have minimal impact on overall economic growth if the government moves quickly to repair roads and railways.

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“The inundation in the southern provinces should have only a passing impact on the economy. Overall, the Thai economy is expected to grow stronger from last year to 3.5 to 4 percent this year,” Isara Vongkusolkit, chairman of the joint standing committee, said Monday, according to The Nation.

Although the floods disrupted transportation for tourists, Vongkusolkit said overall tourism would not be significantly affected as major tourist destinations like Phuket and Krabi “escaped lightly,” the Bangkok Post reported. Tourism is the fourth-greatest contributor to the Thai economy at nearly 20 percent in 2014.

“Some tourists are enjoying the flooding, they’re taking pictures and going swimming,” said Nongyao Jirundorn, a tourism official on Samui island, according to The Guardian.

But in rural southern Thailand – a major producer of rubber – farmers are feeling the most severe effect.

“This the worst impact we have had in the area in 10 years,” Uthai Sonlucksub, president of the Natural Rubber Council of Thailand, told Reuters. “The floods are very heavy. The problem is this year we’ve seen both drought and flooding so it has been disastrous for rubber farmers.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.