Nov 01 2011
With fingers and toes crossed, it looks like Bangkok may have dodged the worst of the floods. Yes, upcountry has been hammered in order to save Bangkok, many lives have sadly been lost, and we imagine or at least hope for significant debate on the approach taken by and priorities of the Thai government. But for now, save a major collapse of a flood wall, downtown Bangkok looks to be in the clear. In another few weeks the high tides of the weekend just past are set to return, so if it doesn’t rain and the floodwaters from north of Bangkok are able to be drained to sea before the big tides return — which may be a big if depending on who you listen to — Bangkokians should be home and hosed.
It surprises many to learn that in a country famous for its beaches and islands, many Thais cannot swim. The floods saw a rush on both life-jackets and small boats as people panicked to make sure they’d be able to stay above the surface. Reports via Twitter indicated that the price of inflatable boats in Bangkok department stores edged up as the flood waters inched closer and enveloped some areas.
While fancy hotels in Bangkok and Phuket claim you can drink the tap water safely, we’ve always stuck to bottled water when in Thailand; as the floods approached there was panic buying of water in supermarkets and convenience stores as people stocked up and the shelves were left bare. With swathes of northern Bangkok, Ayutthaya and central Thailand still immersed in water the threat of water-borne disease remains of very serious concern.
As bottled water supplies became scarce in some areas, people swapped tips online as to how long one needed to boil tap water before it was safe to drink. Advice on correct procedures varied and the government (already with its hands full) failed to distribute advisories promptly. One medical source estimates an adult should drink two to three litres of clean, safe water per day; when you’re looking after a family of four, that’s a lot of water to boil and store.
EM (Effective Microorganisms) balls were produced en masse to help disinfect polluted water. The Nation reported that some 22,500 of these balls were scattered in one district of Ayutthaya province, where over a million chickens are believed to have drowned, their carcasses spoiling the water. One EM ball is believed to be able to disinfect around four square metres, so they’re going to be needing a few more balls yet.
Some residents saw opportunities in the flooding with impromptu fishing taking place in the oddest locations. With more than 100 crocodiles believed to have escaped into the waters around Bangkok, the fishing did take on an extra element of risk, though we’re yet to hear of any close encounters where the humans came off second best.
The Thai government took a very controversial approach of deciding to sacrifice the area around Bangkok in order to protect the downtown area from catastrophic flooding. Even minor levels of flooding downtown brought degrees of panic, with overblown headlines and sensational stories distracting attention from the ravaged areas surrounding the city, where the real stories of suffering continue to play out.
As waters approached, sandbagging became the vital second barrier after the main floodwalls the protect the city. Unfortunately many were outwitted when, despite having properly sandbagged, flood waters flanked the bags, entering via toilets and drains, thus circumventing the barriers at the front door. Floodwaters don’t knock.
Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook filled a gap left by a government that was often not on message or, worse still, sending out wildly conflicting advice or censored announcements. People on the ground used both Twitter and Facebook to advise which roads were flooded and which were dry enough to safely drive on. It also provided a platform for people, especially those in the tourist industry, to impress that all of Thailand wasn’t flooded and much of the country remained safe to travel to.
Almost 400 people have died in the flooding across the country. Many of these were related to electrical accidents, but flash flooding and other drownings have also been too common.
In a city famous for its traffic, it seemed fitting that cars would yet again get in the way. Many Bangkokians living in low-lying areas opted to park their cars on sections of elevated expressway. While this protected many of the cars, it crucified the traffic in some areas and made the work of emergency services considerably more difficult.
Stayed tuned for further developments as the Thais work hard to mop up in the aftermath of their worst flooding in decades — and they keep an eye on the tides ahead.
Photos by Emma Rosenberg, text Stuart McDonald.
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