Friday, October 28, 2011

News From Bangkok

I have two nephews who are cousins living in Bangkok, Thailand. One is an author and expert on East Asian Art. He lives a high profile life. His name is Andrew Kerr and I have written about his books on Japan which are classics. His 1993 book, Lost Japan is still a classic and because of it, he was the only non Japanese author ever to win their top literary award. When the disaster in Fukushima occurred, I wrote a post on Alex's 2001 book, Dogs and Demons, which created such a stir in Japan in its revealing look at the culture of corruption and cover up which made the Fukushima disaster and inevitable event.
My other nephew, Tom Kerr is an architect who has devoted his life to making affordable housing available to the third world. He has been a part of the ACHR, The Asian Coalition for Housing Rights for over 10 years. (if you click on ACHR link, the web graphics are all Toms)  They've rebuilt Phillipino slums devastated by landslides. They've been working with communities destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami. They even sponsored groups of Indonesians to come to Louisiana to work with poor communities devastated by Katrina. What they do best is let the people they are working with decide the best solutions for their housing needs and then come up with design solutions that work. Infrastructure, plumbing, electricity are all integrated into their people designed communities.
The work they have been doing has caught the attention of the Bill Gates Foundation and now they have gotten a few hefty grants that have allowed them to expand their concepts into some very high profile projects.
This week, at The United Nations, an exhibition opened called "Design With the Other 90%: Cities" sponsored by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. Here is the link from the October 23, 2011 NY Times review of the show. There is much of the work of AHRC in the exhibit. Here's a picture of recent project along the Bang Bua Canal in Bangkok. 
Most of the design is rugged and embarrassingly simple. You might ask, "Why hadn't anyone come up with that idea before?"
The beauty lies elsewhere: in providing economical, smart solutions to address the problems of millions of the worlds people. I am so proud to know Tom. He is a great human!
It is tragic that as this show opens, Bangkok is being inundated by the worst flooding it has seen in hundreds of years. We get emails from Tom everyday as the drama of the flooding plays it self out. He lives in a traditional Thai wooden house in central Bangkok in an island of tranquility in the midst of the urban chaos. So far, he is dry, but everyday, the threat gets closer and closer. AHRC is still on line and has shifted its energies to improvising flood relief for the poor. I am getting a first hand daily account of the situation.
I have a rather lengthy explanation of what is going on, how it happened and the prospects of dealing with it from AHRC. It is very interesting and will give you information which you could never get from news sources.
I am printing in it's entirety after the break on the break if you wish to read it:
 Over the last weeks we have received many messages of concern about the floods in Bangkok – thank you for your concern.  At the moment, the ACHR office and surrounding areas are still dry, and we have built a 0.60 meter wall to act as a flood barrier in case the waters rise.  The floods this year have been unprecedented – something that has not been seen in Bangkok before.  The coming week is the critical stage for Bangkok, but uncertainty will remain for a month at least, due to the extraordinary volume of water – more than 10,000 million cubic meters - which somehow needs to drain from Thailand’s central plains out to the sea, with Bangkok standing right in the way. 

Thailand’s flood crisis began in July-August 2011 in northern Thailand, and the waters have now gradually moved their way down towards Bangkok, on their way to the sea.  So far, 380 people (official numbers) have been killed in flood-related incidents, and it is estimated that the economic cost to affected industries and agriculture is at 186 billion Baht (around US$ 6.2 billion).  This figure could double if Bangkok is badly affected.  

The first areas to be affected by the floods in August and September were the central plains of Thailand, then the central region; Lopburi and Nakhon Sawan provinces first, then reaching Ayutthaya Province in mid-October.  All of these areas were (and many still are) 60-70% submerged in up to 2 meters of water, forcing people to either evacuate their homes, or live on the second floor.  Ayutthaya and Pathum Thani, a huge industrial zone with many factories producing goods from cars to electronic parts to clothes, were swamped, causing thousands of people to lose their jobs as factories were forced to end operations.  It will take at least 45 days after the floodwaters have receded for factories to begin operating again – in the meantime, many of the factory workers, who were mostly migrants from other parts of Thailand or from Burma, Lao PDR and Cambodia, have been forced to return to their homes and are facing the possibility of unemployment without sufficient food and care.  According to the Bangkok Post newspaper (20/10/11), the disaster has devastated 837 factories in 6 industrial estates, leading to the loss of 370,316 jobs. 

These unprecedented floods in the central plains and Bangkok are due to various factors which, combined together, have allowed the problem to spiral to the point where it is very hard to control.  
Bangkok is built at sea-level, in the river delta:  Firstly, the geography of Bangkok and its surrounding areas make it prone to flooding, being built on the natural flood plains near the mouth of the Chao Phraya River delta on the Gulf of Thailand, where many networks of canals for irrigation and transport were built in the past.  As a consequence, the Bangkok Metropolitan Region, and the cities of the central plains to the North of Bangkok, are prone to regular flooding almost every year. 
More rain than ever:  While Thailand usually experiences some floods during the rainy season, this year there has been far more than the usual amount of rain.  
Dams:  There are three large dams which help to regulate the water flow in the central plains, but this year they could not cope with the large amounts of rainfall and so had to continue releasing water even into already very full rivers.  Every year, there is a fine balancing act between releasing too much water and risking shortages later on if there is little rain, or releasing too little water and facing problems of over-capacity when a heavy monsoon hits.  This year, the rain was heavier than usual.  So the rain and run-off from dams are major sources of the very big volume of water that now needs to reach the sea.  
Tides:  At the same time, October-November is the time of very high tides, which means that the water level in the Chao Phraya river is already very high and is struggling to cope with the added runoff from the rivers. This is more than Bangkok’s usually effective storm drains can handle.
The politics of water management:  Combined with these natural and water-management problems is the fact that the last few months have been a time of change for the Thai government – general elections in July 2011 brought in a new Phuea Thai Party government (the red shirt side), promising populist policies and measures. This change in government meant a change in most top officials, combined with the end of the fiscal year, which usually brings in new staff to key posts.  The new government and the previous government have been strongly opposed to each other, and the new government itself is composed of many different factions which are not always very united, having to share their positions in different ministries.  When the floods called upon the government to present a united and more cohesive response, this was not going to happen easily.  On top of that, water management in Thailand involves 16 different organizations from four major ministries.  This very fragmented, sectoral approach makes collaboration difficult, compounded by a new government with new officials. 

In the case of Bangkok, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) is under the governorship of the opposition Democratic party, so a cohesive plan and good collaboration with the Pheu Thai central government has been all the more difficult, and has given rise to political game-playing.  Certain politicians or influential people are also keen to keep their areas and their constituents dry, and this means that water is not always diverted to the canals where it should go.  There have been several protests by communities against plans to drain water into their areas.  In some cases, the flood protection walls have been damaged or undermined.  This all means that the direction in which water is drained has become a very sensitive political matter, and it has become quite difficult to manage according to the plans or information given to public.  Finally, the Prime Minister declared a national emergency and announced special regulations to take over all the powers from municipalities and all other government organizations in flood management. However, the lack of unity within the government has meant that different ministers have made conflicting announcements, and management does not seem to come from a proper unified knowledge and collaboration. 

The floods have now advanced to Bangkok and surrounding cities.  A number of districts have already been seriously affected, particularly those to the North and the West of the city.  While the situation is still critical, everybody hopes that most of the flood walls will hold, despite the very high tides (the Chao Phraya River has already risen to a new record high of 2.5 meters above sea level!) and will protect most of the city from substantial flooding.  If downtown Bangkok gets flooded at all, the hope is that it will get less than 50cm of water.  However, some areas in the northern and western parts of the city are already under two meters of water. 

The situation is still critical, as enormous masses of water currently in those parts have confronted all of Bangkok’s flood walls this week and are combined with high tides.  It is expected that it could take until mid-November for the biggest volume of water to pass through Bangkok. In the meantime, those who have been affected have had to be evacuated from their homes to temporary shelters, many doing so without any support from the authorities.  Where flood relief is provided, it is sometimes used for political gain by politicians, with MPs being a source of distribution of relief goods only to their voters.  There is a lot of conflicting information in the news and media, leading to confusion about whether to leave or not.  Everyone is affected, from the very poor to the rich, houses and factories.  Even the Flood Relief Operations Center had its headquarters flooded, at the site of Bangkok’s second airport.  Three days of holiday have been declared from 27th-31st October, leading to an exodus from Bangkok by those who can still escape and have the means to do so.

Urban and rural community networks have linked together to organize their support to affected communities in 22 provinces.  The activities range from surveying the affected areas, organizing relief and food centers, providing relief and survival tools and food,  getting those affected to be organized, taking care of each other and linking with other necessary assistance.  For the Baan Mankong national network, it has been agreed that all the members in the national network will contribute 30 Baht (US$1) each to help those being affected by the floods.  At the same time, funding to support these national activities has been raised and managed by community network.  Some networks who have more healthy City Development Funds, such as Chum Phae in Khon Kaen Province, where they raised enough local contributions in their city to support one truck-load of food and 10,000 Bhat to those affected.  All the present immediate relief activities have been planned to lead to a more organized rehabilitation stage, which is planned to be as much a community-driven process as possible in both urban and rural areas.

This month has also seen major flooding in Cambodia and flash floods in Burma, both leading to the loss of lives as well as incomes.  And so now is the time for the region to pay more attention to flood management plans and for communities to prepare and have disaster rehabilitation plans ready.


squatlo said...

Hoping the best for your nephew over there as this disaster unfolds, MD. Truly epic, what they're going through.

J.O.B. said...

This just seems awful. I will caryy these people in my heart. And I hope everything turns out O.K. for your nephews, keep us posted.

microdot said...

JOB & Squatio, I really appreciate your comments. I got another long email from Tom today...he's still dry, but most of the people closest to him are flooded out. He retains his sense of humor, but I can tell this is starting to get to him. I am going to post a photo gallery that was in The Atlantic this week . Bangkok still has at the very least another month of flooding to cope with.