Thailand flooding: Is this 2011 all over again? Probably not

2013 10 01 thailand flooding

With tropical storm Wutip bringing downpours to Thailand, are we likely to face massive 2011style floods all over again?

It’s not looking that way.

The AP puts things in perspective:

Thai authorities said Tuesday that floods have killed more than 20 people and affected areas across the country over the past two weeks, though experts say there doesn’t appear to be the risk of devastation seen in record floods two years ago.

Thirty-two out of 77 provinces have seen flooding since mid-September and 23 people have been killed, the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department said in its report, adding that 25 provinces still have flooding.

“Thanks to the dredging of the canals and the weather, at this point there is nothing to panic about,” Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paripatra tweeted Monday night. “Currently the water level in the Chao Phraya River is still low, so there’s nothing to worry.”

And as Bangkok Pundit noted in a characteristically comprehensive post last week, a crucial issue in 2011 was not just massive downpours, but high water levels in dams:

The risk at the moment is flash floods from heavy rainfall as we have seen in Prachinburi- which is expected to continue over the next week – but this completely different from what we experienced in 2011 where we had heavy rainfall and large discharges of water from the dams. We will continue to have discharges of water, but don’t panic over small dams. Watch the rainfall though as if it continues we will have more flooding – more like 2010 – but still not enough rain to see anything like the 2011 floods.

Even in the apparently unlikely event of wide-scale indentations, however, one concern is the status of the government’s flood defense projects.

The WSJ‘s Southeast Asia Real Time said last week:

Since the 2011 flood, which the World Bank estimated to have cost Thailand about $45.7 billion in economic damages and losses, Ms. Yingluck’s government has launched an $11 billion effort to improve Thailand’s flood defenses as it scrambled to reassure anxious investors.

However, the government’s floods control projects have been met with legal delays and protests. A court in June ordered Ms. Yingluck’s administration to conduct an environment and health impact assessment before it can proceed with the projects, which include constructions of dams, reservoirs and a flood prevention command center. The government recently filed an appeal.

The upshot, though is this: Don’t assume we’re in for floods like we saw two years ago.

(Image: Bangkok Post.)


Will Bangkok Flood Again This Year?

It’s possible, says one expert in Thailand.

But a look at water levels in Thailand’s dams reveals that they seem to have plenty of capacity at this point.

A story in today’s Bangkok Post says:

Bangkok is at risk of flooding from heavy downpours caused by an unusually lengthy monsoon trough period and an imminent storm early next month, an expert has warned.

Run-off from the North, which last year left parts of the capital submerged, will only worsen the flooding because the real threat this year is rain that may overwhelm the current inadequate drainage system in the capital, said Thanawat Charupongsakul, a disaster and geographic expert at Geology Department of Faculty of Science, Chulalongkorn University, yesterday.

The city has so far not released enough water from canals to the extent done back in 2006 when canals were left with plenty of capacity to hold floodwater, he said.

“To make things worse, City Hall has still not stopped quarrelling with the government over flood management,” he said.

(Indeed, during my reporting on last year’s inundation, some experts told me that a major problem was a lack of coordination between government agencies.)


Mr Thanawat is most worried about October because that is when run-off from the North and high tides increase the water level in the Chao Phraya River.

The city’s river embankment is about 2.5m above mean sea level, but provinces upstream, especially those with industrial estates, have built and increased the heights of their levees and flood walls, so the run-off will be blocked and eventually move toward Bangkok

I understand that substantial work has, in fact, been done to fortify flood defenses around some industrial estates. So it makes sense that areas farther downstream could be at risk as water is displaced.

Meanwhile, Bangkok Pundit has an extensive post today on water levels in Thailand’s various dams.

(Some say a problem in 2011 was that not enough water had been discharged from such dams earlier in the year, meaning they were largely full when the heavy rains started and could not be used to retain excess water.)

The conclusion:

Simply put, while we still need to keep an eye on heavy rainfall which can cause flash floods, we don’t have the level of water entering the river system from the North and the Central regions that we did last year. Until this happens (which BP thinks is still very unlikely for this year), the risk of severe flooding is very low.

Ultimately, water management is a complex issue. But Bangkok drainage mechanisms, coordination among agencies, and water levels in dams seem to be key components.

(Bangkok Post link via @kmorit.)

Thai politics

Bangkok Post: Environmental Group Seeks to Stop Industiral Estate Flood Walls

Just a quick note: A story in today’s Bangkok Post caught my eye. It says:

Industrial estate operators are hitting back at activists seeking a court order to halt anti-flood dyke construction, saying the work is urgent and needed to regain investor confidence.

The Stop Global Warming Association is today asking the Central Administrative Court to issue an injunction suspending construction of anti-flood dykes being built at seven industrial estates inundated during last year’s floods.

The association president, Srisuwan Janya, has said that the barriers would cause damage to the homes of villagers living nearby in the event of future floods.

He also said the permanent floodwalls would have serious social and environmental impact, altering natural water-flow routes.

But Thavich Taychanavakul, managing director of Hi-Tech Industrial Estate, said construction of the new dykes is under way in order to win back investor confidence and get ready for the coming rainy season.

I’ve noted Thailand’s flood prevention plans as rainy season approaches; today’s news could represent a significant development.

Sirsuwan Janya, of course, is head of the environmental group that brought the lawsuit over environmental concerns surrounding the Map Ta Phut industrial estate. Some $10 billion of projects were suspended for nearly a year.

It’s unclear, of course, what will happen with this, Srisuwan’s latest effort. But I wanted to point the story out for now.

UPDATE: There’s more from MCOT.


Self-promotion: New WSJ Southeast Asia Real Time Story on Thailand Flood Prevention Measures

I have a new story today at The Wall Street Journal’s Southeast Asia Real Time blog.

The headline is “As Rainy Season Approaches, Thailand Focuses on Floods,” and the story begins:

The Thai government says it is taking steps to prevent a repeat of last year’s massive flooding. But experts warn that some of the government’s big ideas – such as large-scale new dikes – probably won’t be completed before seasonal rains arrive in just a few months.

Give it a read.


NY Times on Thailand’s Supply Chain Issues Following Floods

A recent New York Times story says:

KHLONG LUANG, Thailand — The floodwaters receded weeks ago from this sprawling industrial zone, but the streets are littered with detritus, the phones do not work and rusted machinery has been dumped outside warehouses that once buzzed with efficiency.

Before Thailand’s great flood of 2011, companies like Panasonic, JVC and Hitachi produced electronics and computer components that were exported around the world. Now of the 227 factories operating in the zone, only 15 percent have restarted production, according to Nipit Arunvongse Na Ayudhya, the managing director of the company that manages the Nava Nakorn industrial zone, one of the largest in Thailand and located just north of Bangkok.

“The recovery has not been that easy,” Mr. Nipit said in an interview Friday on the sidelines of a meeting where he sought to soothe anxious foreign factory managers.

The slow recovery here is having global consequences. Before the floods, Thailand produced about 40 percent to 45 percent of the world’s hard disk drives, the invaluable and ubiquitous storage devices of the digital age. It is now becoming clear that it will be months — significantly longer than initially expected — before production of hard drives returns to antediluvian levels.

(Emphasis mine.)

Worth a read.