Oct 19 2011

Living through Bangkok’s floods

Published by at 2:09 pm under Floods


by Hamish Chalmers

What’s it like to be living through Thailand’s floods? Every year we get these reports of areas up-country being inundated with the annual monsoon run off, and we think ‘how awful’. And then we carry on with our lives. Not so this year.

Free water views.

Free water views.

I live with my wife and our eight month old daughter in Nonthaburi province, Bangkok’s northeastern neighbour and a rapidly developing communter zone, in a moo baan (housing estate) in Bang Bua Thong municipality. For the past week or so while we’ve been seeing the utter inundation of places like Ayuthhaya and Pathum Thani, the only evidence of a threat to Bangkok and its immediate surrounds has been confined to relatively small areas around the canals that branch from the Chao Praya as it snakes its way through the capital. These tended to be just places one passed in the car on the way to work, thinking: Phew, I’m glad I don’t live there!

As it became clearer that the water was coming for real, and that this time the risk wasn’t just to the provinces, there was a noticable step up in activity to try to protect the moo baans and municipal assets in the province. Sandbag walls started to spring up blocking entrances to these estates, backhoes and dumper trucks arrived with mud and gravel to build dykes along the road sides, and pumps could be seen sucking gallons of water out and spewing it on to scrubland, irrigation ditches and the roads. Still we watched and waited as our moo baan stayed dry.

Yesterday morning there was news from Bang Bua Thong centre that a flood wall next to the main temple had broken and the town centre was under a metre of water. At the same time the Governor of Bangkok was saying that he needed 1.2 million sandbags to effectively protect the capital and that the government’s promise of 800,000 bags fell short, and in any case had yet to materialise.

I could feel the prickles of concern rise on the back of my neck. Our moo baan committee, who had been monitoring the situation and putting in place various protection measures, called a village meeting and asked for all hands on deck to fill sand bags (they had taken delivery of four tonnes of sand), build walls at the entrances and keep watch in one-hour shifts through the day and night to warn if the waters were rising. They were quietly confident as apparently our moo baan sits higher than most in the area, and the ground floors of the houses here are a full 1.2m above road level — meaning even if we experienced flooding like that in Bang Bua Thong we would not have to worry about it entering our houses.

While we were doing this we were hearing stories of other estates where protection measures had failed. We heard about an argument that ended with a gun being drawn as one moo baan tried to destroy the defenses of another because the effect was beneficial to one while detrimental to the other’s. Goodness knows what happened to the poor folk who live in the shanty towns built to house the workers who are constructing ever more moo baans in the area.

In the meantime some people chose to evacuate — though to where is a mystery. As is now clear: if it’s dry it’s impossible to get to unless you have a helicopter … or a boat. We chose to stay. We started taking things up to the second floor of the house beginning with our daughter’s food and nappies and ending with the TV, which had been blaring news of destruction at us all day and had done nothing to calm our nerves. This all seemed well and fine though, it was still dry after all.

At 21:00 the committee called another meeting to ask for help shoring up the sandbag wall at the front entrance and to show us that the rear entrance wall was holding well. We could see the moo baan opposite ours feverishly pumping water out into the irragation canal that divides us. Then we learned that the two pumps that we had been using for the same purpose had broken. Nevertheless, we were assured that the sandbags at the gates were doing well and that we could hope for the best. That was until one member of the community revealed that water was coming in under the retaining walls of the estate.

Forget sandbags, pumps and goodwill; for the lack of a decent foundation, flooding now seemed inevitable. We went to bed last night at 01:00, unable to keep our eyes open for any longer. At 06:00 we woke to the sounds of sloshing. It had finally happened. The water had continued to flow in under those retaining walls, the pumps stayed broken, but the sandbag walls held and are now doing a great job of keeping the water in the moo baan.

As I sit here typing, I can see the water outside rising slowly but steadily. From a wet road at 06:00 this morning, the fetid mixture of rain, canal water and sewerage has filled the garden and is now half way up the first of the two steps that lead to the ground floor. We are sitting in a barren room, with a fan and the one sofa that was too heavy to carry upstairs, and that will now probably be sacrificed to the inundation. I hope it likes it.

Luckily for us there have not yet been any crocodile sightings but as with humans other animals look for dry land in a flood and so I am on the look out for snakes. We have enough food and water to see us though the next couple of days but after that it’s anyone’s guess. My hope is that somebody in the capital will pull their proverbial finger out of the dyke and let this water find its way into the Gulf of Thailand.

[See Travelfish.org’s latest flood update for travellers here.]

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2 Responses to “Living through Bangkok’s floods” ...

  1. Markon 20 Oct 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Good luck with all of this – I’d pray but I’ve no evidence it’s ever helped anyone I’ve ever thought about not praying for before, and plenty that it had no effect, and my mother, whom I think is studying for her finals in praying, has not seemed to induce any benefit by praying what-so-ever in the many family crises that bestow her eight children. So I think I’m saying strength to you and yours in these damp times, and I won’t invite ethereal bodies to visit; sounds as though you’ve enough to worry about with crocodiles and snakes.

  2. Hamish Chalmerson 24 Oct 2011 at 5:24 pm

    Thank you Mark. I believe in evidence. I don’t think there’s an awful lot of evidence for the power of prayer, but in the evidence for the power of people I have no doubt. These last few days have shown how important people are and I am forever in their debts.

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