Sonca not the only culprit behind floods

Sonca not the only culprit behind floods

Terrible decision making made the Sakon Nakhon suffering much worse - such as the scandalous forcing of aid to be delivered by old, clapped-out boats instead of new ones in the warehouse.
Terrible decision making made the Sakon Nakhon suffering much worse - such as the scandalous forcing of aid to be delivered by old, clapped-out boats instead of new ones in the warehouse.

When I say the floods in Sakon Nakhon that led to widespread damage were not really caused by rainwater, I'm not joking.

True, the province was hit by an enormous volume of rain, said to be the most in 50 years, but man-made errors and ignorance made the situation worse.

People were warned a few days before tropical depression "Sonca" hit many parts of the country. But Sakon Nakhon residents weren't warned soon enough that the Huay Sai Kamin reservoir was already full and unable to take more rainwater. (There is still debate over whether the reservoir was "breached" as images circulated on social media suggest, but the Irrigation Department denies it).

Whatever the case, Muang Sakon Nakon had to cope with a huge volume of water, some 2.4 million cubic metres, before the floods even came. Another lesson from this disaster was how poorly designed our crisis warning system is.

But if we look at the root cause, poor crisis management isn't the only culprit. Poor urban planning is a factor that contributed heavily to the recent disaster.

Interviews with respected businessman Prasart Tongsiri and Asst Prof Sitta Kongsasana, both from Sakon Nakhon, confirmed that urban planning and infrastructure development are not open to public participation or consultation with experts from respective fields.

The latest flooding revealed that state agencies work independently to simply get projects over with, without consulting residents or asking for expert advice.

Mr Prasart, who has spent his entire life in the province, complained about how the expansion in the early 1990s of the Nittayo Highway linking to Udon Thani blocked the water flow.

Additionally, waterways used to channel water out of the city have shrunk as a result of illegal land reclamation. That is what caused a massive amount of water to flow into the city, making it the worst flood since 1974. As there was nowhere for the water to go, it submerged the city, the businessman said.

In Sakon Nakhon, water runs from Phu Phan Mountain to the Nong Harn wetland, which takes care of the city's water retention, bypassing the city before it reaches the Kam and Mekong rivers.

But authorities have realised there are flaws in the current highway, which is positioned higher than the surrounding area and has a non-porous surface that slows down water flow and causes floods. The issue has never been fixed.

It is not realistic to remove infrastructure such as highways that have already been built, but experts can suggest how to make future highways doubly functional -- instead of serving the purpose of a highway alone, they should also act as waterways in times of floods.

Unfortunately, the Department of Highways carried on and built the standard routes with the usual flaws, and the city began to accumulate more and more flaws along with the poor city planning that included the covering of canals and paving of more roads.

Asst Prof Sitta also spoke of how some business operators illegally occupied parts of waterways when he was living in Sakon Nakhon, and how urbanisation inappropriately stretched out on wetlands along the poorly planned highway.

But Sakon Nakhon isn't the only victim of shoddy city planning. These problems can be seen all over Thailand.

Take my hometown Khon Kaen. I remember quite a few canals zigzagging into the city, including one near my home. But they kept disappearing one after another, being replaced by infrastructure to facilitate city development -- roads and parking lots.

Some residents weren't sure if there was a public hearing before one section of these canals was turned into roads and another into a parking facility.

As a result of the increasing non-porous surface area of the roads and parking lots in the expanding city, combined with the disappearance of canals and poor management, flooding in Khon Kaen worsened, roads became impassible, and the time needed for drainage after each heavy downpour became longer. In fact, there are more flaws in Khon Kaen's city planning, but I would rather not go into it here.

What I want to say is that the authorities need to learn from past mistakes and think seriously about fixing these flaws. The best way to do this is to listen to what the people living there have to say.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai

Columnist

Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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