Authorities boost flood-control measures

News and Press Release
Originally published

BANGKOK, 1 February 2012 (IRIN) - The Thai government is pressing ahead with efforts to mitigate the risk of flooding during the upcoming rainy season, but greater coordination is still needed, flood experts say.

The US$9.6 billion measure was announced on 20 January as a first step, ahead of the annual May-October rainy season, at a flood forum organized by the National Economic and Social Development Board and the Asian Development Bank.

"If the same amount of water comes to Bangkok this year [as in 2011], the situation will be improved," Chusit Apiramanekal, a water resource management specialist in the Climate Risk Management Department of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC) [ ] in Bangkok, told IRIN.

While no specific timeline is yet in place, the government will soon produce a master plan for flood risk reduction activities, including canal drenching, cleaning drainage systems and excavation to prevent the recurrence of last year's damage, when "most of the waterways and drainages were not functioning properly", said Ti Le Huu, former chief of water security for the Environment and Development Division at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) [ ].

The severity of the 2011 floods, brought on by unusually high rainfall after several storms and typhoons, has underscored the need for stronger prevention efforts.

More than 675 people died and millions were affected in what has since been described as the worst flooding to strike the Thai kingdom in 50 years.

The government's 2012 Action Plan includes a budget of $3.9 billion for the construction of flood ways and flood diversion channels, which will allow 1,500 million cubic metres to flow out per second, according to ADPC. Immediate work this year would include the improvement of dykes, sluice gates and canals.

In addition, almost $2 billion will go towards converting 324,000 hectares of Chao Phraya farmland north of Bangkok into land that can retain up to 10 billion cubic metres of water to prevent the flooding of areas downstream.

Preparedness key

The damage last year was exacerbated by the "lack of preparedness of people living in the affected areas, partly due to a lack of an effective communication system to share information, especially of flood forecasts", said Le Huu.

But Le Huu downplayed the risk of similar flooding in 2012. Similarly, ADPC says there is little chance that there will be a repeat of 2011's "extraordinary" precipitation, which was 40 percent above national averages at 70,000 million cubic metres of water, according to Chusit.

"When the dams tried to release the water, the provinces downstream were already flooded. When operators tried to control it, a tropical storm hit Thailand, forcing them to release it fully," he said.

The total volume of floodwater has been confirmed at 14,000 million cubic metres by the government's Strategic Committee for Flood Reconstruction and Development, according to Le Huu.

Dam fears

While fears about the dams bursting are rampant in local media [ ], Deltares [ ], a Dutch think-tank assisting the Thai government in an advisory role to the Flood Relief Operation Center (FROC), says dams are now operating at a lower level to mitigate flood risks.

"During 2011 the dams were full, up to the operational limit, and dam operators had to release water at the wrong time. Latest news is that they decided to operate at a lower level, give less priority to agricultural and energy use, in favour of downstream flood protection. Hence a lower risk for dam breaks," Tjitte Nauta, Deltares' integrated water management specialist for Southeast Asia, said.

According to local media reports, dam waters have dropped from 91 percent of capacity to about 84 percent in two weeks.

Of the more than two dozen dams in the Chao Phraya River basin constructed since the 1950s, the two largest - Bhumipol and Sirikit - are located on Ping and Nang river in the northern Tak and Uttaradit provinces, and control 22 percent of all water runoff from the Chao Phraya river basin.

But policymakers need to coordinate better to improve planning and flood response, said Nauta.

"The recent floods made very clear that the governance structure for water management is too complicated and during such a national crisis one single command authority would be strongly recommended," he said.

"The challenge is to maintain the momentum of work, interest, and commitment in flood management at the top level of government," added Le Huu.