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Flooding in Bangkok

by Joshua Kurlantzick
October 19, 2011

A man stands on sandbags at a flooded intersection in Pathum Thani province, a suburb of Bangkok October 19, 2011.

A man stands on sandbags at a flooded intersection in Pathum Thani province, a suburb of Bangkok October 19, 2011. (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters)

Over the past week, Thailand has been threatened by its worst flooding in nearly five decades. As the Wall Street Journal has reported, the flooding already has killed over 300 people and destroyed large areas north of Bangkok. It now threatens Bangkok, and already has significantly damaged many of Thailand’s most important industries.

The government of Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra has declared a national crisis and pleaded with all Thais to band together, avoid political in-fighting, and work to mitigate the worst effects of the crisis. At a press conference, Yingluck seemed visibly overwhelmed by the damage.

Yingluck’s appeal aside, the government’s lack of organization and messaging in the face of this disaster is obvious. It cannot be held responsible for the years of poor flood management, dam management, and deforestation that have helped turn normal monsoon rains into floods that have become catastrophic. But it can be held responsible for its approach to the crisis. Many Bangkok residents I spoke with had no idea what their evacuation plan should be, whether the flooding was likely to impact their areas of the city, or what kinds of precautions had been taken to protect their homes and businesses. Some, as a result, had chosen to stay put, with little better information to go on; others had worked with friends and neighbors to organize their own sandbags and other protective measures. Those who stay could wind up in severe danger, with little ability to access information about how critical – or not – the flooding has become. Although thousands have volunteered to help with blockading parts of the capital, they have often turned up to locations where volunteers were asked for only to find out there were no government officials there to manage the response, or the location for the gathering had been changed completely.

Overall, this distrust permeates the entire relief and response effort. According to the same Wall Street Journal, “An opinion poll released Tuesday found that 87% of people surveyed distrusted information released by the government’s flood war room based at Bangkok’s old international airport.” Bangkok’s Governor (the equivalent of a mayor in the United States) has built his own crisis center, in part probably because he does not trust the national government’s response. Bangkok still might get lucky and survive the worst of the flooding, but it will not be thanks to the national government.

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