Asia Counts Flood Costs

Southeast Asia is counting the costs of devastating floods. But simple changes could have saved hundreds of lives.

Luke Hunt

As Thailand battles to save Bangkok from perhaps the worst natural calamity to ever strike the city, neighbors Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam and Laos are tallying up flood bills that are expected to reach billions of dollars.

The cost in human life, more than 1,000 including flooding in the Philippines, was enormous, but perhaps the biggest tragedy has been the number of children who drowned – more than 200, simply because they were never taught how to swim.

Such tragedies take on another dimension when considerations like the predictability of floods are taken into account. Indeed, the subject dominated a recent three-day Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Brunei on meteorology, along with the need to implement early warning systems.

‘These floods map exactly onto models for a one-in-a-hundred-years’ event, and things could get worse in the future. If we know where the floods are going to happen and how high they are going to be, then we should be better prepared,’ said Jerry Velasquez, head of the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) in Bangkok.

The United Nations has warned of potential ‘serious food shortages,’ with 2.5 million hectares of crops under water and with food prices expected to rise amid devastated harvests.

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In Thailand, more than 400 people have drowned, more than 2 million people have had their lives affected and large volumes of water are still moving across the city and heading for the sea.

In Burma, at least 210 people have died and more than 8,000 homes were flooded by swollen rivers that hit four towns in the Magwe region. There are fears the toll could be much higher as hundreds of unregistered people were living in Pakokku, where flash floods left many people unaccounted for.

Cambodia's National Committee for Disaster Management says 250 people were killed, with another 1,000 schools and 400,000 hectares of rice paddies ruined by the worst floods to strike Cambodia in a decade. More than 250,000 hectares of rice crops have been completely lost, with 3,000 kilometers of roads and other infrastructure destroyed. The cost to Cambodia was expected to be in excess of $400 million.

Similar tales have emerged out of Vietnam, where at least 59 people are dead and 700,000 affected, more than 88,000 houses and 22,700 hectares of rice fields have been flooded and 1,472 kilometers of dikes damaged.

International aid donors have promised millions of dollars, while medical supplies, blankets, mosquito nets, tents, food rations and other supplies are being airlifted in. Harder to shift has been attitudes, which has deeply frustrated the authorities.

According to a report by the UNISDR, the 200 children who have so far died in the floods could have been saved.

‘The number of children killed in these floods is really high,’ Velasquez said. ‘Countries exposed to flooding should invest in education and teach their children how to swim.’

His sentiments were echoed by Benito Ramos, charged with civil defense, who went house-to-house urging people to evacuate their roof tops and head for higher ground. Residents refused to budge, saying they feared looters, and told Ramos to leave and come back with food.

Rescuers in rubber boats and helicopters encountered similar resistance across the region and said they feared they would be charged with human rights abuses if they forced people to leave. Then the floods became overwhelming, the people panicked and drown.

Of the major hit rice growing areas, Thailand – the world’s largest rice exporter – has lost 1.6 million hectares, or 12.5 percent of its crop. Exports could fall by a third in 2012, from 10 million tons this year.

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In the Philippines, 12 percent of its crop has been ruined, while Cambodia has seen 7.5 percent of its rice fields inundated. Vietnam has lowered its forecast rice exports for the year to seven million tons from an initial estimate of 7.5 million tons. Its forecast for 2012 also stands at seven million tons.

Hanoi insists rice exports haven’t been affected by the flood, but losses were expected to impact on the country’s rice surplus, which was expected to reach about three million tons this year.

Such numbers will punish the Philippines, the world’s largest buyer of rice. Manila hoped to be entirely self-sufficient after cutting rice imports from a record 2.45 million tons in 2010 to a planned 500,000 tons in 2013. This target wasn’t expected to be met.

Meanwhile, the livestock and poultry industries have also suffered heavy losses. Coffee prices are on the rise, with heavy rains in South America and already declining supplies and therefore compounding problems brought on by floods in Southeast Asia. Vietnam is the world's largest producer of Robusta.

The global computer industry expects a slowdown in global output of hard disk drives because key plants in Thailand were either submerged or running low on parts. A Honda Motor plant is also underwater, while Toyota has changed its shifts after floods disrupted the supply chain for delivery of parts made in Thailand. Production is being scaled back in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines as result.

The UNISDR report urges governments to open discussions with the private sector in order to construct future factories in disaster proof areas. Workers would also be better protected, from building their own homes in districts not prone to natural disasters.

The report came ahead of peaking flood waters, although its findings were hardly unprecedented.

Authorities in Bangkok have for years been warning about the need for a fully integrated approach to flood warning. The biggest impediment was convincing government, and Thailand has suffered from rapid changes in leadership, meaning their inability to plot long term strategies has been compromised.

Its Southeast Asian neighbors, however, have no such excuse.