11 July 2024

As torrential floods continue to flow through urban and rural zones across Thailand, a rising number of people are falling victim to the annual “natural” disaster. Many have also been abandoned to cope on their own, without early warnings or timely assistance from authorities.

“A warning was issued on September 28, but it came too late because our house was swamped that very day,” a resident of Ubon Ratchathani’s Warin Chamrap district said.

According to international standards, flood alerts should be issued at least 120 hours in advance, said Chainarong Setthachua, a lecturer and ecology expert at Mahasarakham University.

“Within that timeframe, there is enough time to come up with a proper flood response plan,” he said.

Lack of effective alert system

Chainarong said Thailand still lacks an efficient early-warning system, with most agencies using secondary data from the Thai Meteorological Department.

“Even the National Disaster Warning Center relies on citing reports from the weather bureau when it issues alerts via its Facebook page,” he said.

In contrast, a proper response plan has three steps. The first is to issue a flood alert at least 120 hours in advance, the next is to move belongings to higher ground and evacuate the elderly or physically challenged people, and last is to rehabilitate affected people and areas after the disaster.

“But as you see, we don’t even have the first step in place,” Chainarong said. “So, the result is that people are largely left to cope alone.”

He said that people living along the Mun River in Warin Chamrap had evacuated to a public road on their own initiative in late August after continuous heavy rain looked set to fill their homes with water.

“The locals did the same in September because nobody offered them advice or help,” the academic said.

Chainarong lamented that while flooding in Thailand is worsening, the government’s flood-management plans have not improved.

Assoc Prof Seree Supratid, director of the Rangsit University’s Climate Change Center, said other countries normally issue early warnings with clear evacuation plans. People in affected zones are instructed where to go to seek shelter and are provided necessities while in the shelter.

“The supplies usually last between three and seven days,” he said.

Warnings fail to reach grassroots

Seree said that though advance disaster alerts are issued in Thailand, they tend to be directed to executives of relevant organizations. Hence, the general public is left to struggle on its own when these organizations fail to provide timely advice and warnings.

“Japan has taken a different approach. When it issues alerts, people receive them too, so they can make plans themselves on what they should do,” the water expert explained.

Weather reports in Thailand usually cover rainstorms and possible inundation, but they rarely pinpoint which areas are in danger of flooding, how high the floods will be and for how long the floodwater will stay.

The public often has to rely on information shared on social media, which can also be contradictory and confusing.

“The government should tell us so we can decide what to do before, after and during the floods,” one victim of recent flooding lamented.

Alerts for Thais

Klaikong Vaidhyakarn, of the Progressive Movement, has launched an online campaign via change.org demanding that the government issue timely public disaster alerts via SMS.

“The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission [NBTC] in fact should introduce such an alert system,” he said. “There is no point in using predictive technology just within organizations. If there are risks of disaster, then an SMS should be sent out to people living in zones that will likely be affected.”

This picture taken on March 1, 2022 shows residents rowing boats through floodwaters in Pattani’s Saiburi district. (Photo by Tuwaedaniya MERINGING / AFP)

Wireless emergency alerts

Klaikong said many countries, including Japan and the Philippines, had wireless emergency alerts (WEAs) systems in place.

In North America, an alert comprising no more than 90 characters is sent to people if there are signs of a hurricane, typhoon, storm, blizzard or other types of disaster. The alert may also come with an evacuation order.

Similar early-warning systems are in place in Europe. The Netherlands, for instance, has the NL-Alert, while Italy has the IT-Alert.

In Japan, the alert informs people that the government has identified a disaster risk via data collected from satellites and more. In the Philippines, the Emergency Cell Broadcast System helps inform people of disaster threats and pick-up/drop-off spots during disasters.

South Korea’s emergency alerts ensure not just locals but also tourists get much-needed warnings about natural disasters. The alerts are available in Korean, Chinese and English.

Thai Disaster Alert

Thailand’s Disaster Mitigation and Prevention Department launched a “Thai Disaster Alert” application this year. However, it adds little to the information already available on the department’s website and social media pages.

The app, which is compatible with both Android and iOS systems, only shows which areas may be at risk and lists emergency contacts.

Warning towers

Many people in Thailand were surprised recently to hear alarms from local warning towers alerting them of the approach of storm Noru. However, others heard nothing because they lived beyond the 4- or 5-kilometer range of the towers.

“I heard no warnings from the tower,” one woman said.

Locals in Chiang Mai, meanwhile, said that for disaster warnings, they have to rely on the old wisdom of observing the level of the Ping River.

“We can’t depend on the authorities,” a Chiang Mai native said.

In Ayutthaya’s Bang Ban district, locals say they are fed up with the notion that they should get accustomed to flooding given that their hometown is prone to seasonal flooding.

“We can never get used to our house getting flooded,” one local woman said.

Bangkok’s solution

Deputy Bangkok Governor Tavida Kamolvej said the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration was now gathering data from all sides to predict flooding accurately and deliver timely warnings and advice to residents.

“Bangkok Governor Chadchart Sittipunt, for instance, has already suggested that Bangkokians should leave work early on some days to avoid heavy rain and likely flooding,” Tavida said. “On other days, he said they should stay put at the office for an extra 90 minutes to avoid braving knee-high floodwaters.”

The BMA has also advised people to work from home on some days, so they can avoid traffic nightmares and flooded roads.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk