Cheek by jowl with the Chao Phraya

How two Muslim communities in Ayutthaya are facing up to the prospect of a repeat of last year's devastating floods

Smouldering incense sticks scent the air at Masjid Takia Yokin as Muslim men and women wait their turn to enter the mosque for their weekly devotions. Some have brought with them large dishes full of traditional sweets while others carry garlands made from jasmine and marigold blooms.

A boy beats the mid-day sun by taking a dive in the Chao Phraya river in Takia Yokin in Ayutthaya province.

A short distance away is the mighty Chao Phraya River, glistening in the midday heat.

Adults wait under the shade of a century-old tree while children play games on the floor of a nearby multi-purpose hall. Last year, at around this time, most of these people were victims of the near-apocalyptic flood that left the whole of Ayutthaya under water for months. And the community is bracing itself for the possibility of another deluge occurring before the end of this year's rainy season.

Also known to locals as Takia Yokin, or sometimes as Masjid Takia, this 400-year-old house of worship is situated 5km south of Wat Bang Kacha and serves a thousand-strong congregation. The neighbourhood was badly affected by the 2011 floods, but few reports appeared in the media on conditions there. But then people living in these parts are no strangers to flooding. The level of the Chao Phraya always rises between the months of August and October, they say, with sporadic, knee-deep floods being typical.

But last year's inundation was unprecedented said Haji Musa, who was born and raised in the area, the fourth generation of his family to call the place home. The 53-year-old has been the head of the local community for 20 years and for the past four has also been filling the role of imam.

Aside from officiating at religious rites, he is also responsible for keeping the local district office informed of the level of water in the river.

Somkiat Lekkhapan shows the high water mark left by the flood that devastated his store last year in subdistrict Lumphli, Ayutthaya province.

Last October that level rose to 3m, flowed across the adjoining concrete road and submerged many of the houses in Takia Yokin even though they were built on stilts.

"It was a flood like none I've ever seen before," Haji Musa exclaimed.

At Lumphli, another Muslim community in the area, Sangiam Pacmaei said she almost fainted when she saw the floodwater reaching the second storey of her home. The 73-year-old mother of five was close to tears as she recalled the experience.

"I couldn't eat for days," Sangiam said. "It was so stressful and I couldn't sleep properly. Local people were out of work and the kids kept getting sick."

ACT OF GOD, BUT...

Being a very religious person, Haji Musa believes that the floods which hit Ayutthaya and other parts of Thailand last year were acts of God.

But the imam is of the opinion that people must also bear responsibility for what the World Bank said was the fourth-costliest disaster to date (the damage and losses incurred was estimated to be in the region of 1.43 billion baht).

"We cut down trees in our forests. We don't dispose of our rubbish properly. We take so much without giving anything back," the imam observed.

According to a World Bank study, between 1980 and 2008, agricultural and other areas have increased by 25% at the expense of forested areas in Thailand. This has resulted in a substantial decline in carbon sequestration, soil coverage, water regulation and biodiversity protection, not to mention the reduction in the number of recreational areas once provided by forests. Lumphli resident Somkiat Lekkhapan agreed with Haji Musa. The 56-year-old shop owner also blames the 2011 flood on environmental destruction and the huge increase in the amount of rubbish we generate.

Around 13km northeast of Takia Yokin, Lumphli's community centre is Nurulyamal mosque, which was partly submerged during last year's deluge.

Local residents had to flee their homes and ended up living in government-supplied tents for the best part of three months.

"The mosque was flooded, so every Friday, the day for prayers, we would gather on Tung Phra Naresuan Road to pray," Somkiat said.

EXPERIENCE AND PREPAREDNESS

The Muslims of Takia Yokin have an intimate connection with the Chao Phraya which for many centuries before the construction of roads served as both a transportation artery for people and goods and a rich source of food.

Some of the boats that helped with disaster response at a Muslim community in Takia Yokin in Ayutthaya province.

"The river used to be wide and deep. Now, as you can see, it's all silted up and has to be dredged," said Haji Musa as he pointed to a large machine used to scoop sand from the riverbed.

Other pieces of heavy equipment load the sand onto barges moored alongside the bank.

The imam said the sand is destined for construction sites in Bangkok, although some is kept back for making sandbags.

But sandbags won't be enough to protect Takia Yokin from a repeat of last year's disaster. Local resident Yuphin Malaipong reasons that floods will always occur there because the Chao Phraya used to flow through the land on which the settlement is built. Raised on stilts, her house is located a mere 500m from the waterway.

"When I was growing up, we would all fish in the river, especially the men. All the households here own at least one wooden boat. But when manufacturing industries came to Ayutthaya, most of the people around here stopped fishing and got jobs in the factories," Yuphin explained.

Boats are still a pretty common sight, though. Below Yuphin's house, no less than five wooden vessels are tied up, four of them rigged with outboard motors. Many of her neighbours also have rowing boats made from fibreglass or moulded plastic and these are often tucked into a corner near their front doors when not in use.

Sakhon Chantaviti, a 77-year-old who still teaches Arabic in Lumphli, also owns a wooden boat. He says he built his house on stilts many years ago because he was aware the area was prone to flooding.

Despite having limited resources, both of these Muslim neighbourhoods have established a system for dealing with floods. Water levels in the Chao Phraya are monitored on a daily basis by community leaders.

Local men are tasked to help specific women, children and elderly people in the event of a mass evacuation being called for. Fortunately, both communities managed to get through the 2011 deluge without any lives being lost.

These are resilient people who are used to living with the vicissitudes of nature and Haji Musa believes that they are more alert to the threat of flood and more aware of the big picture than they were last year.

"We just have to change our ways," the imam declared. "When we hurt our environment, we hurt ourselves."

The high water mark left by last year’s flood’s can clearly be seen on this home in Lumphli.

About the author

Writer: Toto Lozano