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Thailand's floods no place for the poor

In man-made or natural disasters, it is always the needy who suffer most

Thailand's floods no place for the poor
Father Thanu Jedsadaphongphakdee, Bangkok

November 18, 2011

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The current flood crisis, the most serious in at least half-a-century, has been going on for four months, seriously damaging many homes, farms and factories, not to mention wrecking many lives. Industry and tourism have also been hit. Notwithstanding exceptionally heavy rains this year, the main reason for the disaster is the scant attention paid to water management and urban planning. Buildings and roads have been constructed in a way that prevents water runoff to rivers and the sea. Many new townships around Bangkok have been built in low-lying areas that used to be water retention areas. Actually, construction that prevents water runoff is against the law, but the law has not been enforced properly. Authorities just impose a fine in these cases. Exacerbating the flood problem is the massive amount of garbage especially in Bangkok. This garbage, often disposed of incorrectly, blocks water drainage channels, causing not only flooding but diseases. There have been no comprehensive flood prevention strategies drawn up by neither the current nor former governments. So what we have been seeing, now as in previous times, are ad hoc attempts to try to prevent the flood waters entering Bangkok, as it is the capital and economic hub of the nation. This is being done by erecting a flood 'wall' built of 2.5 tonne oversized sandbags across the north of Bangkok and closing canal sluice gates. One can argue it is very important to protect the capital city but what about the impact on surrounding provinces? The provinces to the north -- Ayutthaya, Nonthaburi and Pathum Thani – have been left to languish. This is no solution. Not surprisingly, we are seeing conflict between angry residents in affected communities and the authorities. Flood walls have been damaged or destroyed. In the present situation, what the government can and should do is forge an understanding and agreement that those communities that had to be “sacrificed” will get adequate compensation and rehabilitation after the water has gone. Like every disaster, the worst affected are the poor, especially those who earn just enough to meet their daily needs. People who have the money or savings move to dry areas and stay in houses or condominiums there, or they book into hotels in tourist resorts. The poor, on the other hand, don’t have this luxury. Some return to their hometowns jobless. Many don’t even have the money to travel back to their provinces. So they have to wait it out in relief centres. As for the government’s compensation scheme for those whose houses are damaged, there are a lot of regulations and procedures that make it very difficult for the poor to make claims. Those who were renting their homes, for example, cannot produce a house deed, and many of the property owners are not in Bangkok to provide proof that they have rented out their houses to these people. What the government should do when the floods subside, besides giving compensation, is provide long-term, low interest loans to help poor people get back on their feet. Most crucial, however, is a long-term urban plan that includes properly functioning drainage channels and waterways, stopping construction that blocks runoff, and housing flood affected people in other areas after discussions and getting their agreement. This issue should be prominent on the national agenda. Father Thanu Jedsadaphongphakdee is director of Bangkok archdiocese’s Social Action Center
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