Azja-Pacyfik

Catastrophic flood in Thailand (added on 2011-11-15)

At the end of the 2011 monsoon season four Southeast Asian countries: Burma-Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam were hit by a terrible flood, which was most the dramatic in Thailand. The flooded area was growing systematically since late July, starting from the north of the country and along the course of the Chao Phraya, the main river in the country. In October the wave reached the south, covering with water for many weeks first the old capital, Ayutthaya (1351-1767) and later Bangkok.

Floods are nothing unusual in Thailand. Huge waves swept through the country in 1983, 1995 and 2007. The year 2010 was also difficult in this respect. The largest flood was recorded in 1942, but at that time the country was still largely underdeveloped and unindustrialized, therefore the losses were incomparable.

It is a fact that floods have intensified lately. In the opinions of most observers and experts this is related with two factors: 1. Excessive logging of tropical rainforests (in the 1950s more than 70% of the country was covered with jungles, but in the 1990s this area shrunk to less than 20% - and so it has remained until today); 2. Climate change. For these reasons floods in Thailand have a wider, universal aspect and significance: we have to care for nature, since its destruction brings about dire consequences.

A cataclysm of this magnitude has made a significant impact on the political situation in the country. The authorities, both on central and local levels, were too long ignoring the threat, and in the face of disaster they split. The new Prime Minister (the first woman to hold this position in the history of Siam-Thailand), Yingluck Shinawatra (born 1967), who won the elections in July 2011, did not have any experience in politics before – only in business. She won the elections because she is the youngest sister of the popular former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (born 1949), who was ousted in a coup d’état, later convicted for corruption and banished from the country. This fact has an enormous significance also in the context of the flood, as the country has become politically deeply divided due to Thaksin’s controversial rule. The new Prime Minister had no political background, she just used the web of connections of her brother, who in the middle of the campaign – quite unfortunately – called his sister “a clone” of himself. As a result Yingluck Shinawatra, after a long hesitation, did not decide to declare a state of emergency and leave the matter to the army, which after all is experienced in dealing with natural disasters, as she feared that such situation could create conditions for a new coup d’état. Finally, when the flood reached outskirts of Bangkok, she declared a natural disaster emergency – and by its regulations she herself led the rescue mission (in the case of a state of emergency her power would be remarkably smaller). Under these circumstances she decided to cancel her trip to Hawaii for the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit, thus loosing a chance to enter a wider, international scene and to meet global leaders (a meeting with president Barack Obama was scheduled, among others).

Even in a state of emergency, when a great wave of water covered central Bangkok (people were evacuated from many districts, schools and some institutions were closed for several weeks), controversies on how to deal with such situations were still sharp and visible. For example, the mayor of Bangkok Sukhumbhand Paribatra did not even attempt to hide that his priorities were totally different from those of Mrs. Shinawatra’s cabinet. This did not enhance the efficiency of  rescue missions.

The highest wave reached Bangkok in late October. Water was covering the city for several weeks. In early November it was announced that the death toll rose to over 500. The material losses are unimaginable and still difficult to assess. The government has already lowered prognosis of the level of GDP growth in the 2012 from 4.1% to 2.6% and declared that this is not yet the final estimate. The losses in Bangkok, which alone constitutes for 40% of the country’s GDP, will be assessed only in early 2012, but many companies, among them Japanese car assembly plants (Toyota, Honda and Nissan), now covered in floodwater, have already declared that they are even considering removing their production from Thailand. Similar divagations are not uncommon among the electronic companies concentrated around Bangkok. Initial estimates say that general losses due to the flood may amount to as much as 3% of  Thailand’s GDP. They will therefore be higher than the losses caused by the tsunami wave in December 2004, when the GDP fell by 0.3 %. Besides, they will be proportionally higher than the cost of the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in March 2011 (approx. 0.15% of Japan’s GDP).

The message from this cataclysm is clear: the cost of political division and, more importantly, chaotic modernization of the country accompanied by quick urbanization, might be disastrous. It is hoped that necessary conclusions will be drawn from this catastrophe – both in Thailand and beyond its borders.

Redakcja: azjapacyfik@swps.edu.pl. Wykonanie strony: Stanisław Meyer, stan.meyer@uj.edu.pl.