According to the UN, more than 20 provinces in Thailand – one third of the country – are under water. Twelve provinces are on high alert, including Bangkok, and around 2.4 million people have been affected countrywide; 700,000 are estimated to be children. In Cambodia, 17 out of 23 provinces continue to be flooded while 250,000 people have been affected in Vietnam. Half a million people have been affected in Laos, with damage to more than 64,000 hectares of farmland, while 254,400 people in the Philippines have felt the brunt of a series of typhoons. Nature is being seen at its worse.
What if, however, this wet season is (or becomes) the new normal? Climate change projections indicate that the Greater Mekong area will have more rainfall and more extreme events like floods and droughts, so we had better start planning for such a future. As the flood waters from the north surge towards Bangkok, hard choices have needed to be made on which areas are sacrificed to be under water for months and which areas are to remain dry at all costs. It is hard to argue, for example, that both airports should be allowed to be inundated, but how to decide that one industrial estate should be flooded and another protected, or one housing estate flooded and another protected? What the floods in Bangkok have shown is that an engineered solution (which is essential) needs to be matched with natural solutions. Certain areas need to be identified as occasional wetlands and anyone that locates in these areas needs have infrastructure adapted to occasional floods. This may include housing built to the traditional model of being elevated on stilts, with non-essential furniture and equipment under the first storey, electrical wiring in plastic coating, composting sewage systems rather than septic tanks, and road access built above flood level for easy evacuation when needed. The absence of effective flood zoning and spatial planning, which has gone on for several decades has made the flood damage worse than it need be and destroyed the assets of thousands of people, who could ill afford it. EIAs for industrial estates, housing estates, roads, and railways, plus other infrastructure in floodplains need to include climate change as a key factor. Strategic environmental assessment can be used as an upstream planning tool to determine the location and direction of future urban development.
We have also witnessed understandable conflict between flooded cmmunities and government authorities over opening or closing sluices and floodgates. Again, a lot of this conflict could have been avoided by proper flood management plans, regular maintenance of flood protection facilities (with community participation), frequent flood drills for potentially affected zones, and a good understanding of evacuation procedures and flood compensation, plus assurances of strong penalties against thieves and other miscreants taking advantage of the flood situation. Needless to say, better coordination between the central government and the city government is also essential.
Finally, our commiseration and heartfelt appreciation of the level of suffering being experienced in the Mekong region this wet season goes out to all affected. Let's take advantage of the lessons learned and say "never again."