Column By Don Coppock
(Foreign Correspondent for The Waterbury Observer)
Nahmtuam is a word you hear a lot these days in Thailand. It means 'flood'.
As we drove from Udon Thani toward Roy Et in Isaan ( Northeastern Thailand ) it appeared much of the country was underwater. The main two lane roadway was clear, but as we passed over bridges we observed partially submerged houses, wires hung limply a few feet above swollen waterways, and the bridges themselves seemed but a rainstorm away from being submerged from the muddy roiling water beneath.
Meanwhile, rich shades of green stretched as far as the eye could see and rice paddies seemed to float like verdant islands dotting the radiant countryside, seeming to grow even as I admired them.
As the water rolled by dragging much of the landscape with it I thought; This is Isaan at its most beautiful and its most terrifying. It’s monsoon season in Thailand , and with the rains come annual problems.
If you’ve never been here, the rains are probably unlike anything you’ve experienced. Often they start with a clap of thunder and within minutes bullet sized droplets explode from the suddenly ashen sky, rattling roofs, inundating streets while sending people and motorbikes racing for the nearest shelter. The drainage systems quickly clog, and before you know it the roads and sois are little rivers. It's like this in Phuket, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, and Phitsanoluk. It’s the same everywhere, every year, and every major storm. In fact flooding annually dominates the news around this time, particularly in the Isaan area.
This season has been particularly destructive, however, especially in Bangkok , a city of 9 million people, where the damages will end up costing billions and likely spawn Thailand ’s own stimulus plan. At one point the Chao Phraya River , which surges 230 miles from Central Thailand to thread its way thru the city to feed most of Bangkok ’s complex canal system before emptying into the gulf of Thailand was over 6 feet above sea level. At its highest point, Bangkok is approximately 3.5’ above sea level, so you don’t need to be an engineer or a scientist to see there’s a problem. It’s very similar to New Orleans in that much of the city is actually below sea level. Remember New Orleans?
While the tourist areas remained largely unaffected, much of eastern Bangkok ’s industrial areas were shut down. The resulting floods closed Toyota , Ford, Isuzu and Honda plants employing thousands here, and reports suggest many are considering moving, possibly to other countries. Many electronics firms and industrial areas North of Bangkok and so vital to Thai exports have also been devastated. As many as 300 lives have also been lost. In addition an estimated 10% of rice paddies so important to this country’s economic and physical health have been destroyed.
With that in mind it seems odd that in an age where humanity spends billions upon billions developing weapons that can pinpoint and destroy targets a continent away within seconds that we haven’t devoted more of our resources to water management.
We can put a man on the moon, but the concepts of water storage and diversion apparently are beyond us. Indeed, it’s incomprehensible that given its location and the fact it’s a city of canals, Bangkok wasn’t better prepared for this year’s disaster. But then neither was New Orleans.
Humanity seem much more comfortable in dealing with environmental disasters after they occur than in preparing for them. Witness New Orleans …oil spills...tsunamis… The list is endless. The reality is most disasters—economic or natural—often can be avoided. Preparation doesn’t seem to be our strong point, though. Hell, there are still people out there denying global warming. There are folks who doubt the oceans are rising. There are people who believe Al Gore concocted the whole story.
The truth is, much of the flooding in Bangkok , as well as the rest of Thailand could be blamed on things such as deforestation and diversion of natural waterways, and many fingers are being pointed at poor water management. Bangkok in particular exacerbated the problem by overbuilding in catchment areas and filling in canals. As is usually the case politics and money often get in the way. Politicians are much more comfortable dealing with the present than they are with the future.
The ultimate irony is that many of the same areas that suffer from droughts suffer from floods. Here, the Isaan area is well known for both. In rural areas here, slash-and burn agriculture, which ultimately robs the soil of nutrients, has been a common way to clear land for centuries-- many expats leave the area in the hot season because smoke often makes the air unbreathable--and while more recent figures are unavailable, Thailand suffered a loss in forest cover from 53% in 1961 to 25% in 1998. While logging laws have been implemented, nothing suggests that figure will reverse itself, which bodes ill for the future.
Bangkok is a microcosm of problems the world is facing in the age of global warming. While Thailand has been using water barrels for over 2,000 years to harvest rain, conservation still seems a foreign concept, and even with the annual flooding, water shortages are becoming more and more common here as they are worldwide.
In the US , the GAO (Government Accountability Office) predicts 36 states will have water shortages in the next decade. Interior secretary Ken Salazar, along with the National academies of science predicts global warming will lead to severe shortages in the next century.
With most informed people in agreement it seems strange more effort hasn’t been made towards dealing with the problem, and with the recent job crisis it would seem to make sense. We need pipes canals storage containers and water treatment plants, and that could spawn an entire industry if anyone chose to notice, but I suspect it will take a few more droughts and floods before people figure that out. With a growing world populace and an increasing demand for food, water is certainly going to be in demand. And one wonders what cities listed among the 20 most endangered because of rising sea levels are doing about it...cities such as New York, Miami, Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong, among others.
Meanwhile, in my tiny corner of the world, as we approached Ubon Rachathani I observed many enterprising Thais slogging their way thru inches of mud to the riversides and dipping nets in the swiftly moving water, hoping to take advantage of the situation. As always, one person’s misfortune is another’s opportunity, and poorer Thais have learned to recognize and seize these opportunities from experience. Finally, we stopped along the Mun River , rolled up our pants, took off our shoes and trudged and slid thru sloppy mud to observe the annual long boat races along with the crowds lining the shore. Floods or no floods, Thais love their fun.
Water, it seems, can be a blessing or a curse. I'm no weatherman, but I can tell you this; the future calls for rain. What remains to be seen is what we do with it.