I had been attempting to follow Thumper’s mother’s rule about the flooding and trying not to get too political about what is going on with the flooding here in Thailand around the area of Bangkok and the Central area, the “core” of Thailand, but the fact that I have gotten a flood of requests about my own personal well-being as a result of Thailand’s flooding, I thought it necessary to set the record straight and put a lot of my friends, family, and acquaintances at ease, so that they need not worry on that account for my safety any longer.
The flooding of Thailand this fall has been a long-building crisis. As suddenly as it appeared in the world’s attention once the floodwaters reached the area near Bangkok, this crisis has been building throughout the entire summer. I have myself here commented frequently on the rains here in Thailand during my stay here so far   . Truth be told, those who have been here far longer than I have looked at this past summer as the rainiest year they can remember as well, which is both alarming and reassuring. Alarming because all that water has to go somewhere and reassuring because it means that my own concerns about the rain are not irrational.
The flooding in Thailand is a complicated and long-building crisis, but I will do my best to talk about it both fairly and as completely as possible within my space and time constraints. For one, I am dry and the area where I am right now (Mae Sai) as well as the area where I normally reside and go about my everyday activities (the area just north of Chiang Mai at the village of Baan Mae Sa Luang) are not flooding at all. Two and a half weeks ago or so, I had thought to write about the flooding in Chiang Mai and our concerns for flooding at our farm, just before the Day of Atonement, but I did not wish to alarm my readers, and the flooding passed rapidly, so there was no longstanding crisis here, thankfully.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case elsewhere in Thailand. As are so many other natural disasters in the world, this particular flooding is partly natural and partly man-made in its responsibility. Those who are so inclined might also view divine disfavor as well. The natural part of the disaster is easy enough to understand. Most of northern and Central Thailand is part of the floodplain for the Chao Phraya River . Since this river system is the same one that runs by Chiang Mai, when we had all our rains in the summer the waters rose downstream as they rapidly left Chiang Mai (which is at a much higher elevation than Bangkok and the surrounding Central area of Thailand). Since Bangkok and Thonburi and Ayutthaya and a lot of other historically, economically, and culturally important cities of Thailand sit on the floodplain of this river, when there is a lot of muddy water coming from upstream, it has to go somewhere, and if it overflows its banks it is going to do so in some very vital core territories of Thailand. A “bad luck” typhoon that hit Northeastern Thailand with rain a couple of weeks ago did not help matters either.
So, that is the natural element of what we are dealin with—a lot of rain in a muddy floodplain. But there is human responsibility too for the extent of this crisis that must be candidly admitted. The flooding is more severe than was strictly necessary based on the rains because of a few other factors. For one, large amounts of forests in Northern Thailand have been deforested as people are more concerned with short-term profits than a sustainable use of natural resources. Some of these formerly tree-covered hillsides have been covered with corn and cabbage crops (seriously) and the reduction of soil cohesion as a result of the loss of trees and its replacement with cash crops farmed plantation style has made the hill country in places like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Mae Hong Son Provinces more susceptible to landslides, something I have seen with my own eyes . This has meant that a lot of clay soil along with water is being carried by the river south to the sea near Bangkok, and the red dirt has the unfortunate tendency of filling the river channels and allowing the water levels to increase even higher, making what would have been bad enough already even worse.
But that is only the “upstream” human fault. There is plenty of “downstream” human fault as well. Even though the people (and especially the economic and political elites of Bangkok) know that such cities as Bangkok and Ayutthaya are in a giant floodplain, the highest concentration of Thailand’s industry, elite culture, and population, as well as ports and airports, are located in precisely that floodplain. The disaster that has killed over 350 people so far has occurred in large part because a large number of people are in harm’s way by living and working in a giant crocodile pond. Floodplains have rich soil (as does that of the Central Region of Thailand), largely because of frequent floods by the nearby rivers. Only fools build massive cities and factories and palaces directly on floodplains, which is evern worse than building on sand, since it is building on what has flooded before and what will flood again. It is this problem of siting and city planning, a problem that goes back centuries in Thailand for various political reasons, that makes the current flooding a logistical crisis that threatens even those areas that are not flooded with the loss of imported goods or connection with much of the outside world except by fairly inefficient land routes, since the water and air transportation networks of Thailand are all based out of Bangkok.
To make matters even more problematic the respone to this crisis has become ensnared by Thailand’s nasty and fiercely divided politics. The “Democrats” (which are to Democracy what America’s federalists were to either democracy or federalism) have sought to use the flood to declare martial law (which would lead to another military takeover in a nation that needs no more of them) and to undo the new government’s populist political agenda. They control the local government of the Central Region, including Bangkok province, and have sought to prevent the water from going through Bangkok to the sea, condemning the areas around Bangkok and on its outskirts to even worse flooding than would have been the case normally. Those areas thought they were core areas, until the crisis threatened Bangkok, and then they realized to their dismay that they ended up not being considered as core areas at all by their elected political leadership more focused on saving palaces than getting floodwaters to drain out to the sea as quickly as possible for everyone else.
This political confusion has even hindered the ability of other nations (like the United States) in helping Thailand’s recovery efforts . Apparently, the populst national government has been looking for help and the royalist provincial government has been rejecting it, and the mixed signals have led the United States to determine (incorrectly) that no help is either needed or wanted, and that our fleets can go elsewhere. So, what started as too much rain in an area that is being rapidly deforested and covered with plantation style crop monoculture draining out past and through a nation’s core region has become part of an increasingly nasty political battle. Che cassino! But at least I’m dry, right?