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Flooded villagers struggle in aftermath

As waters recede, challenge changes to repairing homes and livelihoods

Flooded villagers struggle in aftermath
Dejected villagers wait for the floodwater to subside (Photograph
Tim France & Panitan Kitsakul, Surat Thani

May 5, 2011

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Vast areas of southern Thailand were devastated by flash flooding in late March and early April for the second time in six months. March brought highly unusual weather conditions across the region and on March 23, unseasonal rains caused waterways to burst their banks and forced residents to flee their homes as flood waters rose for six days straight, according to eye-witness accounts. “These were the worst floods this community has seen in over 20 years,” said Songwarn Thoipad, the community leader of Thakham sub district, Phun Phin district, Surat Thani.
Songwarn Thoipad (Photograph © Michael Coyne)
Thailand’s Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation reported 66 deaths across 10 southern provinces where 628,998 families and 2,094,595 individuals were flood affected to varying degrees. Thakham is among the thousands of low-lying farming communities hit. Three thousand people there were evacuated from their homes, taking refuge where possible. Five hundred people hunkered down in a two-storey school building for several days, cut-off from outside aid. Though widely commended for its response effort, government teams were unable to reach every community and independent organisations such as CaritasThailand and the Diocesan Social Action Center (DISAC) of Surat Thani stepped in to fill the gaps, providing help to villages such as those in Thakham. Father Suwat Luangsa-ard, director of the DISAC of Surat Thani said; “We did an assessment before starting our work which aimed to provide support to those marginalized and isolated in order to prevent overlapping with others.” The emergency relief provided by organizations such as these helped stranded victims survive the event and, as flood waters receded, the immediate impacts quickly subsided. Connections were soon re-established, ensuring all villagers had access to fresh water, food, shelter and electricity.
The real challenge now lies in repairing homes, many of which have been destroyed, and rebuilding livelihoods. In this predominantly agrarian community, the damage to oil palm trees has hit people hard. Plants under three years old have been lost, while those that did survive will be redundant for six to nine months. Due to lost income and immediate cost of recovery, villagers are struggling to meet the costs of daily life. Paying school fees is a burden and the community leader, Thoipad, expects this hardship to endure for the next 18 months. “Now we must work hard and save money. We have to save money,” he said. Villagers gathered to discuss ideas on how to overcome their problems. Planting of short-term crops like vegetables to generate fast cash, and rearing chickens for eggs, are among the solutions adopted by the residents who have the capacity to do so. One farmer is being forced to commute to a local palm oil factory for work, leaving his wife to manage his plot. Normally, around 10 percent of villagers work in the factories but now many more are being forced to do so. The local school is also undergoing repairs after buildings and furniture sustained flood damage. Most of the tables and chairs were washed away and now lie strewn across surrounding plantations where plastic seats sit in withering palm trees, marking the depth of flood waters. The Thai government is helping to shoulder the cost of repairs with a 5,000 baht (US$166) grant to every person. Funds are also being allocated to families who have lost their homes and farmers who have lost crops, while the Ministry of Education is helping to cover the cost of damage to the school. Toitud is confident that the funds will be delivered but he does not expect the money to arrive quickly given that compensation promised following the November floods has not been received in full. Furthermore the sums villagers expect to receive will only go so far. For example, the funds granted for repairs to the school only cover about 20% of the total cost inflicted. Meanwhile, farmers will receive 4,900 baht per rai (0.16Ha) of damaged crops, which falls a long way short of the commercial value. Normally a single rai  of palm trees can generate 6,000-20,000 baht per year. This is why the work of the Church is so important to villagers in Thakham who are also receiving help from private benefactors such as local businesses and Bangkok University.
Fortunately the DISAC of Surath Thani has promised enduring support. Father Suwat said; “We plan to work with these communities in the long term, particularly in organic agriculture, in order to enhance self-reliance and develop sustainable livelihoods.” Disaster mitigation will also shape the work of catholic organizations in the time to come. Father Mahar S.J., Chaplain of the Catholic Undergraduate Center of Thailand, said: “There has been an increasing frequency of disasters in recent years and we believe that in the future there will be more and more [people] seriously affected. Therefore, Catholic organizations should prepare to respond to these situations. We should prepare adequate food, clothes and medicine for the affected people but if we can’t deliver it, we may need to consider having a boat on standby which will help us to respond more efficiently and in time.” TH14102
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