Time to take disaster management off backburner

Time to take disaster management off backburner

'Isn't it time the country established a national disaster management centre?" is a question many people ask each time a natural calamity causes massive losses. It was asked again after several provinces in the North and the Northeast were battered by Tropical Storm Podul, which triggered floods and mudslides. It also left 16 dead, thousands of people homeless and damaged infrastructure such as roads and dykes.

The worsening impact of disasters, resulting largely from environmental degradation, should make policy makers realise the need for a disaster management centre to deal with such problems in a proactive way with prevention being the best strategy.

It's not only Thailand that experiences harsh weather conditions. Our neighbours Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia all face such threats and for a similar reason: misuse of natural resources, especially forests which are dwindling rapidly. Cambodia, with its large timber industry and many mega-development projects has lost its forest cover in a short time and, as a result, has encountered a series of natural disasters. Last year, the collapse of a dam in Laos saw great losses and heavy casualties. Myanmar, meanwhile, experiences severe floods.

We should be wise to the fact that because of climate change, extreme weather patterns are becoming more frequent.

Despite the increasing frequency of storm-induced floods, coupled with long periods of drought, provincial governors have often responded as if the emergencies were merely routine bureaucratic procedures.

However, the response as Tropical Storm Podul lashed the country was different, as politicians from both sides scrambled to play a role. Their eagerness, which set local authorities springing into action, may be attributed to the power of social media. But instead of trying to gain political points, what is indeed is a focus on efforts to help those affected get back on their feet as soon as possible.

Many of us still remember the operation to rescue the young "Moo Pa" footballers and their coach trapped in Tham Luang Cave in Chiang Rai. That incident showed that when everyone joined hands under the strong leadership of then Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn, all obstacles could be beaten.

When this happened, we started to think again about the establishment of a disaster management centre where all parties concerned, state or non-state actors could contribute. But the idea soon faded.

Another example of how a crisis was turned into an opportunity is the civic group, led by Maitree Jongkraijug, and local people in Ban Nam Khem in Phangnga's Takua Pa district.

The district was one of the hardest-hit when the 2004 tsunami ravaged part of the Andaman coast. The group has since used the lessons learned to better prepare themselves in case a similar event happens again.

Instead of passively waiting for state assistance, this southern community developed the "Ban Nam Khem model", which incorporates local people in disaster management work. Under the model, each area has a panel tasked with conducting disaster relief drills and providing disaster warnings. They do this through stringent monitoring and training.

Their model, supported by the local administration organisation and the private sector, has drawn people from other areas looking to learn from them. This community, with a strong environmental awareness, has suggested the country set up a national disaster management centre, as it could better handle such a situation.

With its active response mindset, the Ban Nam Khem community is in sharp contrast to the Interior Ministry's Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM) which has a top-down work ethic and always waits orders from the government.

This leads the department and other state agencies handle disasters in a knee-jerk way, concentrating only on the immediate problems rather than on long-term planning and management.

Also worrying is the possibility the present government will revive some megaprojects, such as controversial dams, by saying they are needed to avert disasters. The danger is it will likely ignore concerns about the side effects such as loss of forests, which will anger environmentalists.

The fact that Deputy Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperative Minister Thammanat Prompow, well versed in the top-down administration style, has been assigned to handle megaprojects raises the prospect of a tough environmental battle coming soon.

Nauvarat Suksamran is an assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

Nauvarat Suksamran

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