'Saving face' bogs down flood response

'Saving face' bogs down flood response

Tropical Storm Sonca ('songbird' in Vietnamese), later downgraded to a depression, brought some of the worst flooding in decades to the Northeast and lower North.
Tropical Storm Sonca ('songbird' in Vietnamese), later downgraded to a depression, brought some of the worst flooding in decades to the Northeast and lower North.

This flooding is a natural disaster." That's the best explanation that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was able to give for the floods that ravaged many northeastern provinces starting last week.

He suggested the flooding was entirely caused by Mother Nature, with no man-made factors involved. His remark says a lot about why there are always flaws in disaster preparedness and responses by governments and state agencies.

I agree that nature played a part. The northeastern flooding was caused by heavy rain from tropical storm Sonca. But human flaws -- poor flood prevention and a lack of preparedness -- played a bigger part, worsening the inundation, damage and losses.

Paritta Wangkiat is a reporter, Bangkok Post.

The government's handling of the latest floods shows the same blame-game playing and communications confusion that we've seen before.

Prior to Sonca's arrival in Thailand, some northern areas were already suffering heavy rain, starting July 18, increasing the level of the Mekong River. As of July 21, more than 1,000 farms in Nakhon Phanom were inundated. Two days later, the Meteorology Department issued its first warning about Sonca barrelling into the North and Northeast. A subsequent warning was released the next day, clarifying which provinces would be hit by heavy to very heavy rain between July 24-28.

Then on July 28, flood waters swept across worst-hit Sakon Nakhon. Pictures of cars partially submerged and damaged facilities and properties in the province went viral on social media.

In fact, there was a window period of over a week -- from the heavy rain starting in the North and the first storm warning being issued -- for authorities to act before the worst flooding in 20 years hit Sakhon Nakhon, affecting 426,000 people and killing at least seven. Where were the emergency warnings and preparedness during this window period?

Worse still, at the peak of the flooding, people were left confused by information given by state agencies. At first, netizens posted pictures of water overflowing the Huai Sai Khamin reservoir, triggering speculation there was a crack in the structure that was allowing water to pour out into towns. But the Irrigation Department quickly denied it, saying the photos merely showed "erosion".

Then, local people said there was something wrong with an emergency siren warning tower. The Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation chief denied it, saying there was no malfunction.

The military government compared this inundation to the Big Flood of 2011 during the Yingluck Shinawatra administration. This time, it blustered about its "good response" to the disaster and blamed nature, while complaining that poor state management contributed to the 2011 deluge.

Thai governments hardly ever come forward to admit their flaws. On many occasions, they have downplayed disasters to prevent a public panic.

But this government should not try to convince us into believing that we're better off this time by comparing the scale of the damage caused by the latest flooding with that which occurred in 2011. The 2011 disaster was much larger than what took place over the past week.

Since 2011, there have been more than 28 flood events, according to the Hydro and Agro Informatics Institute. But the state's responses have been bogged down by the same ineffective early warning systems and lack of preparedness.

There has also been a rise in the frequency of floods since 2011. So, the regime should stop the blame game and start doing something or else we will suffer more losses and worse damage from future floods.

Other factors have also contributed to the increased severity of floods. On the resort island of Phuket, for instance, new buildings have been built on lush hills, blocking natural waterways, despite a law restricting construction in such areas. How come the construction of these buildings was approved by local authorities?

Since the 2011 flooding, there has been a national, irrational fear of floods, especially in Bangkok where flood-prevention infrastructure has been built. Authorities seem to forget that the city is a flood-prone area. What is lacking in Bangkok is a good flood management plan.

The face-saving culture is also a major barrier to effective disaster management in Thailand. To save one's face, blaming others or Mother Nature (who cannot argue back with a loud speech) is an easy way out. After that, floods are forgotten while the government and state agencies move on with no desire to improve their disaster preparedness or response.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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