Sunday, October 23, 2011

Waiting for the Water

There are a half dozen 7-11`s within walking distance of my condo in Bangkok and all are out of bottled water, bread, milk, and Mama (the packaged instant soups Thais like best), and I've noticed that the Oreo supplies are running low.  Clearly a disaster is in the works, but it's extremely slow moving.  Nearly a month ago I traveled with my students to Ayutthaya for a field trip to tour the ancient ruins.  Extremely heavy monsoon rains this season had filled rivers, canals and dams throughout Central Thailand.  We saw a few flooded areas around the ancient city, which is on an island at the confluence of three rivers, and residents and businesses had stacked sandbags to prevent the waters from spreading.  This reclining Buddha, although located in Ayutthaya (my son Nicky and I saw it on a tour two years ago), was not yet wet.

That was then.  Not long after, the Ping overflowed in Chiang Mai, and soon severe flooding was reported in Nakhon Sawan in the heart of the Chao Phraya river basin in central Thailand.  Next came Ayutthaya and the suburb of Wang Noi, former rice fields and now industrial estates where my university (pictured here) built a campus several years ago.  Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Buddhist University was turned into an island by the flood.  Final exams were cancelled and students were forced to move out of the dormitories, evacuated in boats.  While I escaped with Nan to Phayao, a dry northern province, the water moved relentlessly (but slowly) south toward release in the Gulf of Thailand, stopped only by dykes and barriers in the northern suburbs of Bangkok.

Satellite photos show the watery noose tightening around the capital city.  TV stations now show non-stop videos of Thais struggling to cope with the flooding, declared the worst since 1942 (you can see videos of that flood here), wading down city streets, chest deep in water, dragging their belongings with them in plastic buckets.  By now, 28 of Thailand's 77 provinces have been affected by the floods, nearly 400 have died (several bodies of people who were electrocuted were discovered yesterday near Bangkok), over 113,000 have been displaced and are living in 1,700 temporary shelters.  According to The Nation, nearly 2.5 million people have been affected by the floods.  An estimated 750,000 have contacted water-borne diseases.  Buddhist temples, most located on rivers and canals, have been hard hit.  A major relief effort is underway (the U.S. sent a team of marines who were seen filling sandbags).  Snakes have been reported in the flood waters and a number of crocodiles are on the loose.  People are being told the flood waters could remain from four to six weeks.

Thailand's new prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has been severely tested.  Her opponents have used the crisis to win points they failed to make during the election which overwhelmingly picked her.  Just as Obama was blamed by the radical right for the economic situation created by Republicans under Bush, Yingluck is accused of poor water management even though it was under PM Abhisit's tenure that his government failed to prepare for excessive rain (not much has been said here about global warming as a cause).  The economic consequences of the floods will be devastating.  Since the last big flood in 1995, thousands of factories have been built on former rice fields in the flood plain and most are now under water.  Thailand is the world's largest producer of hard-disk drives, the biggest exporter of rice and rubber, and the second largest supplier of sugar, according to Bloomberg.  Japanese and American car manufacturers, computer companies and consumer electronic firms, all of whom who have extensive operations here, have been hard hit by the disaster, and over 14,000 business operations have been reported closed.  But even more tragic are the many thousands of Thai workers forced to return to upcountry homes without pay while the factories are shut, and perhaps even worse, the illegal workers from Burma who reportedly are streaming back across the border.  Corporations can relocate; the poor have few other choices.

Despite this morning's headline in the Bangkok Post, "Flee to the Rooftops!," central Bangkok, as of 7 a.m. Sunday morning, remains relatively dry.  However, with store supply lines cut, we're running out of food. Yingluck's main problem is sending mixed messages.  The government's Flood Relief Operations Command (with the ugly acronym "FROC"), headquartered at Don Muang Airport, warned of evacuations while the governor of Bangkok (a member of the opposition Democrats), denied this and said "listen only to me."  Then they switched.  Gov. Sukhumbhand ordered 27 riverside communities to evacuate immediately because the water is rising "for unknown reasons," according to MCOT, the government news agency (how about too much water?).  When Yingluck declared the floods a national disaster, the Governor delayed fully opening the canals so that the northern waters would more drain quickly.  Residents have been seen on TV destroying barriers that keep flood waters in their suburbs to protect the wealthier and therefore more essential city of Bangkok.  First Yingluck says the city is protected, and then says it's in danger.  Water must be made to flow out rapidly through a series of canals to the sea because, otherwise, it will take over a month for the waters to disperse.  Twitter has been for me an invaluable source of up-to-the-minute news, but you have to weed out the repetition and wild rumors.

I live in Pinkalo on the western Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River.  My building is two-and-a-half long city blocks from the river, a 20-minute walk or 5-minute bus trip (depending on traffic).  I've been keeping an eye on this embankment under Pinklao Bridge, and two days ago I saw it rise about a foot in two hours.  The barbecue restaurant behind me continues to operate even though sections of the large outdoor building are blocked off by water.  I walked across the bridge to Thammasat University, all boarded up and sandbagged, and then through Banglamphu where Khao San Road is located, and I saw many businesses with quickly constructed cement walls in front of their shops about a meter high.  Preparations are erratic.  Central Pinklao, farther away from the river than I am, has hundreds of sandbags in front, while Major, a shopping mall across the street, had none.

My life had been impacted considerably by the floods.  The conference, for which I spent weeks writing a paper on "Big Tent Buddhism," has been postponed until May.  MCU's campus in Wang Noi has been closed indefinitely and temporary quarters have been obtained at Wat Awaut in Thonburi not far from the river where teachers and students are to gather on Tuesday for the new term.  I began a class in English for graduate students in Linguistics yesterday at Wat Srisudaram near where I live, but here you can see the large statue of magic monk Somdej Toh, not far from the classroom building, threatened by water from the Bangkoknoi khlong (canal).  Two blue boats were stored at the ready near the stairs to my class.   Nan returned home yesterday with a supply of rice, two flashlights, and food cooked by her mother.  At the airport shop I was surprised to see two big bottles of water and a half-loaf of bread on sale which I grabbed before any of the tourists realized there were shortages of supplies and food in Bangkok.  Now we wait for the water to arrive.  Or not.

This is what the flood in 1942 looked like at the Democracy Monument, a short distance from Pinklao Bridge.  Bangkok residents wait for an uncertain future with some anxiety, hoarding food and watching TV news videos, hoping that what is happening not far to the north will not inconvenience them.  In the meantime, the sun shines in hazy skies this Sunday morning and the streets are quiet and -- dare I say it? -- normal.  It's also not a little exciting, like the time of street troubles a year ago April and May.  Uncertainty can be invigorating. I recall winter storms in the Santa Cruz mountains when torrential rains would cause landslides and the falling of trees.  Once, all roads in and out of Boulder Creek where I lived were closed.  Potential landslides made our house unlivable and we stayed with friends.  It was exciting.  Then there was the 1989 earthquake when we camped outside in the yard for a week because of the aftershocks.  Mother Nature is never boring.

You can almost see my office in the Faculty of Humanities in the lower right of the classroom building pictured here.


Sam said...

And don't forget 750,000 so far have succumbed to water borne diseases.

Anonymous said...

Amazing ! Thanks for reporting what you see.

I often read your blog but have never commented.

Thanks again for an interesting blog!

Marcus said...

Thank you Will,

I was looking forward to reading your report!

And just in case anyone reading your blog is interested, may I make a small plug here?

A good mate of mine called Steve is helping to run a classroom for the kids in the flood relief camp in Don Muang airport and needs help with materials and volunteers.

He's set up a facebook page if anyone is interested:

Thanks again Will and stay safe and dry,