Oct 26 2011
by James Fahn*
While the rest of the world watches in dread as the flood waters encircle Bangkok, Thais and other residents of the kingdom have quite understandably taken to wondering who or what is responsible for the Damoclean deluge they’re now facing. The search for a scapegoat is entirely predictable, but in this case results may prove uncomfortable for many of us.
The most obvious source of the problem is simply an inordinate amount of rain. Rainfall has been heavier than normal throughout the watershed of the Chao Phraya and its tributaries this year.
But couldn’t the authorities, particularly those minding the dams upstream of the Chao Phraya, have done more to regulate the flood waters? That is the accusation put forth by Smith Dharmasaroja, head of the Natural Disaster Warning Foundation. He claims that more water should have been released from the Bhumibol and Sirikit Dams earlier in the year so that there would be less coursing downstream now.
Of course, rainfall levels are notoriously difficult to predict and the authorities were apparently concerned that a repeat of last year’s relatively scanty precipitation would leave reservoir levels too low for irrigation needs. But this underscores the broader point that the purpose of dams — often touted as “multi-purpose” projects to be used for flood prevention, irrigation and electricity production — ultimately have to be prioritised: in this case, it seems that flood prevention lost out to irrigation and power generation.
But there are at least two other causes of the floods have not received sufficient attention. The first is that economic development over the past few decades has been carried out with almost no consideration for the impact on flooding. It’s not just that forests have been felled, either legally or illegally, removing one form of a natural reservoir that helps to slow down run-off. Perhaps even more important is the filling in of the country’s once-vast wetlands which played such a vital role in water storage.
In addition, roads, housing estates and other concrete surfaces have been authorised and built with virtually no thought about their implications in impeding proper drainage. Development does not have to be this way. Innovative designers have come up with ways to build permeable surfaces, design landscapes and plan development to reduce flooding.
Unfortunately, a much more difficult issue to address is climate change. Although it is not scientifically possible at the moment to link it to individual weather events, we do know that increased and more intense precipitation, more extreme weather and sea level rise (affecting tidal and storm surges) are three of the major impacts we face in a warming world. We simply don’t know for sure yet what the impact will be on the monsoon, but the projection is for increased flooding, and when I and my fellow reporters meet with farmers and water managers in South and Southeast Asia, we hear lots of reports of rain coming in shorter, heavier doses.
Given the current stalemate in global climate change negotiations, how can we respond to this? Certainly there’s a temptation to throw up one’s hands and say the problem is too big for us. That would be precisely the wrong response. In fact, the threat of climate change makes it all the more urgent that we act locally not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also to prevent flooding – and other impacts of extreme weather – by protecting forests and wetlands and integrating smart design into planned development.
If the current crisis helps the Thai authorities and people to realise this, there will at least be one silver lining to the very dark cloud now looming over Bangkok.
*James Fahn is a journalist and author of A Land on Fire, a book about the issues he covered and adventures he had as an investigative journalist covering environmental issues in Thailand and Southeast Asia.
In a spot of good timing, the following video hit the interwebs this morning and does a great job of pointing out some of the issues behind the floods. It is in Thai, but lovingly, has English subtitles.
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