On Sept 21, I was in Hong Kong to give a talk at a Unesco event for International Peace Day. The next day, a large typhoon was to hit the city. Questioning my hosts if they were concerned, everyone smiled and shook their heads, telling me that there were no worries as Hong Kong’s infrastructure is well prepared to handle the wrath of Mother Nature.
Presently, yet another flood is sweeping through Thailand, worries and concerns ought to be paramount. Thus far, three million people in 28 provinces are affected, including 36 people killed, according to the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department. This is a national crisis, not just a regional or provincial hiccup.
We read stories such as the panic and chaos in Yupin Otaka community in Ubon Ratchatani because there’s no evacuation plan in place. We read tales such as residents of flooded Kabin Buri district in Prachin Buri complaining that they have been left stranded by the authorities.
Rescue efforts are reportedly undermanned and resources underfunded. Meanwhile, more than 700 factories in the Amata Nakorn Industrial Estate in Chon Buri have been warned as the flooding sweeps through the east.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra instructed all cabinet ministers to take part in overseeing flood relief operations, telling them to also visit affected residents. Frankly, that is exemplifying the phrase "the least we can do".
Hark back to the 2011 flood crisis, and we see similarities in how the situation is being handled, namely the question of who is in charge. As yet there is no leadership, direction or organisation set up at the national level. Different agencies are on their own, undermanned and underfunded.
In 2011, at any given time, the country was confused as to who was in charge of flood prevention, Ms Yingluck, Plodprasop Suraswadi, Wim Rungwattanajinda or Pracha Promnok. Miscommunication, lack of communication, misinformation and false alarms that caused panic plagued the situation.
To top it all off, the government headquarterss set up to combat flooding had to be moved twice, because it was flooded twice. Meanwhile, the finance minister openly wept in front of the press and foreign investors.
The affect of the 2011 flood should not be entirely blamed on the Pheu Thai government. They were in power less than a year. Thailand has been poorly planned for decades. Today, we can’t expect the government to have made ready the infrastructure to handle another flood either.
Deforestation has been going on for decades as has building towns and villages right in the path of the floodway -- both mind-bogglingly shortsighted practices and both of which will require much time and effort to address.
But one thing the government must be challenged to do and take the blame for if fails to do so, is providing effective leadership and management in a time of crisis. In 2011, they deserved the blame squarely. In 2013, we need them to prove otherwise, though thus far we are not seeing it.
Then there’s another problem, the age-old scourge of the egotistical and face-value culture.
In 2011, foreign experts like Dutchman Adri Verweu were brought in, given a corner office and promptly ignored. This is because local ego is more important than international help, but we were image conscious enough to seek international help, if only for appearances.
Meanwhile, local experts like Somsak Khaosuwan, director of the National Disaster Warning Centre, who knows the flooding problem inside and out – nature-made, man-made and politics-made – were brought in and also ignored. This is because seniority ego is more important than real expertise.
Hopefully, before the situation gets any worse – and it is already at a disastrous level in many areas – the prime minister will step up and provide effective leadership, direction and organisation, or appoint someone who can – though his or her name should definitely not be Plodprasop.
One day we might be able to smile at the wrath of Mother Nature. Not because we are blissfully ignorant and careless, but because like people in Hong Kong we know that we are well led and well prepared. Today is not that day.
One consolation we can take is that in the 2011 flood crisis, the people truly came together, in spite of incidents where communities clashed over sandbags.
In general, from Bangkok and to the provinces, people of all backgrounds volunteered to combat the flood and rescue those affected. Food, clothing and other assistance were donated in abundance, even if much of it was left to rot in government warehouses due to the abysmal lack of organisation and proper management.
Otherwise, it was a testament to what we can do when we come together. We would be able to make a much greater testimonial if there’s effective leadership at the helm. That task falls to one person, prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.