When Adri Verwey, a Dutch flood expert, arrived in Thailand in early October last year, the country was struggling to prevent a wall of water from flowing southwards to Bangkok. It was also struggling against itself.
Government departments were working alone – even sometimes against each other – and in charge was a weeks-old administration led by a relative unknown in Yingluck Shinawatra trying to protect the opposition-run capital.
“There were these political problems,” says Verwey, a consultant with Deltares, a Dutch institute specializing in flood solutions.
Contacted by Thai authorities through the Dutch Embassy in Bangkok, Verwey was soon taking charge of crisis meetings involving the new prime minister, the army and numerous ministries as they tried to plug leaking dykes and flush water out to sea via poorly maintained flood channels.
“With a good master plan this could have been foreseen and prevented,” he says. “That is the nature of human beings: Something has to happen before action is taken.”
So how well is the country prepared for next time?
Nearly a year on from Thailand’s worst disaster in living memory, and the fourth-costliest in the world ever at an estimated U.S. $45 billion, significant progress has been made, say flood experts including Verwey. But there is also still plenty to do.
In a key step, the government set up a super committee chaired by the Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi designed to oversee water management and connect all the moving parts, a major problem last year when the country’s two biggest dams were already 90-percent full when a series of tropical storms hit.
At the end of August, the cabinet allocated over U.S. $20 million for water management in addition to the funding that had already approved earlier this year. Part of the money will be spent on a national flood monitoring command center with the help of Dutch firm AGT International which has designed a similar system for the Yellow River in China.
The army spent three months dredging more than 500 kilometers of canals in Bangkok, more than 2,000 Thai civil servants have been sent to South Korea to learn from experts in Seoul and Thailand has in turn received similarly qualified Chinese in Bangkok.
Some of these measures are short-term and others – like the computerized flood command center – will take longer to get up and running.
In the meantime, the many factories that make up Thailand’s industrial heartland to the north of Bangkok have taken matters into their own hands.
Mostly positioned a matter of a few kilometers from the Chao Phraya River on its main flood plain, these industrial zones were wiped out one by one in October of last year as water levels reached four meters in some places disrupting production at the likes of Hitachi, Nikon, Sony and Honda.
Last week, bulldozers were putting the finishing touches to a reinforced wall around Hi-Tech Industrial Estate, defenses that have been replicated at a host of other manufacturing zones nearby. All are nearly complete.