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.
Just north, workers were scheduled by mid-September to finish protecting another cornerstone of Thailand’s economy – Ayutthaya, the ancient capital which draws millions of visitors each year.
“All our main infrastructure is in good condition,” said Royol Chitradon, director of Thailand’s Hydro and Agro Informatics Institute.
The difference between 2012 and 2011, he says, is that the watershed area has been extended, widened, reinforced and rehabilitated, additional pumps have been installed to increase water flow out of populated areas and the water in the main dams was steadily reduced leading up to the start of the wet season in May.
Although areas in the north and west of the country have seen flooding recently – so too Bangkok – the monsoon season has not been half as ferocious as last year says Adityam Krovvidi, head of the Asia-Pacific office of Impact Forecasting, a risk modeling division at the World’s biggest insurance company Aon Benfield.
“Bangkok has already seen [the] near ‘perfect storm’ last year,” he said of the wet season, which included five tropical storms, already wet conditions in the south around the capital and a high spring tide out in the Gulf of Thailand.
In other words, these were one-in-a-hundred-year weather events, according to experts. Dutch flood expert Verwey says he has seen reports suggesting Thailand may only see the same freak patterns every 250 years. The problem for Thailand – and many other countries – is that these freak weather patterns are almost certain to get more frequent.
“In the future, land subsidence and climate factors could also contribute,” warns Krovvidi.
If Bangkok were not already ideally positioned for flooding – it lies at the low point of a country surrounded in the north, east and west by low-lying mountains – it is also sinking. The most pessimistic forecasts suggest parts of the capital could be underwater by 2030 as the increasing population sucks up ground water, and other environmental factors take their toll.
Combine that with a country that has lost half its tree cover in the past 70 years and you have the ingredients for a modern-day Atlantis, a similar situation facing Manila and Ho Chi Minh City, according to a joint report at the end of last year by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and International Cooperation Agency of Japan.
Songsuda Adhibai, co-founder of S+PBA, an architecture firm that made headlines recently when it designed a Bangkok cityscape floating on water, says the Thai capital’s future flood problems are not just about building dykes and ferrying in sand bags. Long-term solutions are needed, she says, ones which plan ahead beyond just managing water and consider the whole layout and function of the city.
“Don’t ask [so] far ahead about serious flooding,” says Songsuda. “Bangkok is a city that doesn’t have a master plan.”
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.