Thailand has plans to spend more than $12 billion in flood mitigation measures to try to avoid a repeat of last year’s devastating floods that killed hundreds of people and cost billions of dollars. Ron Corben reports on the country’s preparations ahead of the start of another monsoon season.
An enduring image from Thailand’s 2011 flood catastrophe was the lines of white Honda vehicle roof tops above blackened waters left stranded at its plant in Ayudhya province, just 60 kilometers from Bangkok.
Now after a few months spent cleaning up and millions of dollars for replacement robotics and machinery, the $700 million plant is again operational.
Honda plant manager Pirapat Kanoknark, is hopeful about soon returning to churning out some 240,000 vehicles a year to meet increased demand across Asia.
“Yes it’s a new beginning for us because everybody has built up the company’s recovery by every individual hand.”
Hiroshi Kobayashi, president and chief executive officer of Asia Honda Motor, says the more than three month cleanup process had been a challenge “beyond words.”
“To do this we have to ask our supplier, machine manufacturer and also our associates to clean up everything. So it’s a big challenge. ... The machinery was completely destroyed. So I think its record breaking speed to resume.”
The floods swept through Thailand’s central plains, killing 800 and causing some $45 billion in damage. Many people blamed the government for mishandling the crisis. Since then, changing that perception has been a top priority for the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The government said last year’s floods were mainly caused by not releasing enough water from reservoirs in the north early in the rainy season. They say they are keeping a close eye on dam reservoir levels.
Last month, Ms. Shinawatra’s cabinet approved $800 million to fund some 240 flood management projects. Hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land will be set aside for water retention areas, also known as “monkey cheeks.” Authorities also are dredging canals in Bangkok and repairing sluice gates and flood walls.
Honda’s Kobayashi says he is generally satisfied with the flood prevention measures.
“Yes, yes, yes (I am satisfied). And also this time the Thai Government is placing a lot of effort now. And also we are expecting more because more prevention is needed I think. But I believe the Thai government is doing a good job.”
The government has tried to reassure investors and insurers that factories and manufacturing centers are safer this year. The government also has set aside a $1.6 billion insurance fund and $11.3 billion for loans for flood prevention.
Bhijit Rattakul, a former Bangkok governor and adviser on flood prevention, says the government has made a good start in coming up with a master plan, but it is still something that only exists on paper.
“They are not so sure whether this time up to this moment how many of those things on paper have been transformed into action and ready for implementing the plan. This is what I worry.”
The challenge facing the government is one resulting from decades of development that failed to account for flooding. New construction filled in the capital’s old network of canals. New roads and houses have blocked the natural flow of water.
Danai Thaitukoo, from Chulaongkorn University’s faculty of architecture, says more projects are needed that speed the flow of floodwaters to the Gulf of Thailand.
“What I would like to see is how they manage the flow because I don’t see anything about how to get the water flow to the sea like all the canal systems. What I’m seeing right now is more like the building of flood walls. (To) protect a certain area; but they don’t prepare the area that would let the water to flow through, preparing the infrastructure to let the water get through much more efficiently that last year.”
For residents of Thailand’s capital, the economic and political center of the country, the timetable for change is shrinking. Scientists worry that Bangkok is slowly sinking and the low-lying city is threatened by global warming that could raise sea levels, causing more frequent flooding.
The World Bank warns that Bangkok’s flood risk will rise four-fold in coming decades, worrying many that the 2011 floods will not likely be the last.