Staying afloat

With severe flooding ravaging Thailand virtually every year, efforts are being launched to improve warning systems and water management

INUNDATED: Sakon Nakhon has been the hardest-hit province this year. photo: reuters

An unusual rainfall pattern that hit the Isan region late last month caused severe damage in many provinces, especially Sakon Nakhon province, where 426,037 people are suffering from heavy flooding with an estimated economic loss of billions of baht.

Seeing natural disasters getting worse every year and causing more damage to economic growth, stakeholders have reached a common understanding that they need to have good preparation to limit damage, including more effective early warning systems.

The National Disaster Warning Centre (NDWC) was set up after the tsunami in 2004. Its main function is to send warnings about natural disasters to all levels of state agencies, including local communities, so that they can be prepared.

But in the case of Sakon Nakhon, it is being questioned whether an important message from the NDWC reached victims of severe flooding.

Chatchai Promlert, director-general of the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, said his department, which is also in charge of the NDWC, did its job by alerting government officials of the coming rain about one week before the flood.

Hannarong Yaowalers, chairman of the Thai-Water Partnership, previously said the critical situation in Sakon Nakhon has shown that the warning message didn't arrive in time for local people who were directly affected by the natural disaster.

An engineering team from the Engineering Institute of Thailand Under HM The King's Patronage is going to develop a mobile phone application for people living in Sakon Nakhon province that will tell them precisely how many minutes it will be before water arrives at their door.

Institute chairman Thanes Weerasiri explained that his team is going to collect all necessary information, including the amount of rainfall, landscape and other data, to develop the flood app.

"People living in Sakon Nakhon didn't seem to be aware of the flood. I don't know whether they ignored the warning or whether the warning was not received. But the application will let them know the situation in advance. They will have enough time for preparation," he said.

Mr Thanes said the app is expected to be completed in the next few months and it should be further developed for other provinces that are at risk of heavy floods.

Sakon Nakhon has been the worst-hit province for flooding this year due to the influence of the Talas and Sonca tropical storms. Sonca produced a large volume of 250 million cubic metres of water from Phuphan mountain, according to the Royal Irrigation Department. It also overwhelmed Huay Sai Kamin reservoir with 3.75 million cu m of water, much more than its capacity of 2.66 million cu m.

Three days of consecutive heavy rainfall measuring 465 millimetres filled the Nong Han pond, which is the province's main natural water storage source with a capacity of 450 million cu m.

The water spread everywhere without control and Sakon Nakhon city couldn't avoid the inundation.

Nipon Poapongsakorn, a distinguished fellow of the Thailand Development Research Institute, said the early warning system is a challenging problem in need of urgent repair as the current system is not functional.

He said the NDWC just gives basic information about a storm's arrival. It has never gone to a higher level with an effective early warning system that requires experts to collect important data and translate it into a warning message. It should be able to give an assessment of storm power and of risky areas that should be on high alert.

He said the centre cannot match the early warning system developed in Hat Yai in Songkhla province. That one sends a flood warning 10 hours in advance, giving people enough time to prepare.

"We do need to reorganise the early warning system. It needs more investment to get correct data for analysis. There should be a permanent office to work with the case, not the national committee chaired by the prime minister, as it doesn't work any more," Mr Nipon said.

He said the natural disaster management office should be under the Prime Minister's Office. It should consist of an academic unit to monitor and evaluate the situation and an operations unit to provide aid to natural disaster victims. It is normal practice in many developed countries, he said.

Mr Nipon said there is a dispute over whether the organisation in charge of water resources should be under the Department of Water Resources, which is under the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, not the Prime Minister's Office.

The national committee on water resources last week agreed a resolution to move the Department of Water Resources to be under the Prime Minister's Office.

Mr Nipon urged the government to invest in landscape mapping to learn about water flows that carry a significantly high risk of heavy flooding. The Japanese government has already >> >> invested in such a scheme in Ayutthaya province to protect Japanese factories that were hit by the great flood of 2011.

According to the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, 44 provinces have been hit by flooding this year, with 1.59 million victims and 27 deaths.

The situation has returned to normal in many provinces, but the Thai Meteorological Department has warned of another round of heavy rainfall in the South, Central region and parts of the Northeast.

Sucharit Koontanakulvong, chief of the Department of Water Resources Engineering at Chulalongkorn University, warned that Nakhon Ratchasima and Ubon Ratchathani provinces might be hit by storms next month, followed by Nakhon Nayok, Chachoengsao, Rayong and Chon Buri in October.

He suggested that each province should have a plan to respond to heavy floods to limit damage, including clearing water drainage systems and setting up a worst-case scenario for the drill on flood management.

He said the government should have a more concrete policy to protect and preserve natural water storage areas, which are being destroyed by the growth of cities.

"We can't avoid floods, of course not. But we must do more to make it dry as fast as possible," Mr Sucharit said.

Meanwhile, a source from the Department of Public Works and Town and Country Planning said the department is going to set up water drainage systems in a bid to limit effects from heavy floods, especially in urban areas.

Poor city planning and water drainage systems are a major cause of heavy floods in many big cities.

DAM BUSTED: Kalasin province is flooded after continuous storms caused Lam Pao Dam to overflow.

GLOOMY OUTLOOK: Dark clouds hover above Bangkok in May after the Meteorological Department warned of more heavy rain. PHOTO: EPA

OUT OF GAS: Flooding in Sakon Nakhon municipality reached as high as 1.5 metres.

BAD FOR BUSINESS: Sakhon Nakhon's economic zone is hit by floods. PHOTOS: BANGKOKPOST ARCHIVE

AFTERMATH: Villagers in Kamchanod, Udon Thani, plan their clean-up as floodwater recedes.

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