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Geopolitics

Deadly Floods In Thailand Test New Leader, Recall Past Invasions

High waters in the country’s central plains used to protect the Thai people from their attackers. But today, the natural ally has become a scourge, killing more than 330, though poor leadership from new Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra may also be to bl

More than 300 people have been killed by the floods since last July
More than 300 people have been killed by the floods since last July
Arnaud Dubus

BANGKOK - Any time the Burmese army tried to storm Ayutthaya, the historic capital of Siam, between the 15th and 18th centuries, they had to reckon with a terrible enemy: floods. On several occasions, the rising waters in the central plains, which followed the monsoon rains between May and October, saved the Thai people from their attackers. But today, what was once an ally has become a scourge.

This year, after exceptionally intense rainfall – a 25% increase in July and August compared with rainfall over the last 30 years - the tourist regions of northern and central Thailand have suffered from unusually high waters. The areas, where most of Thailand's rice is grown, are overwhelmed. In early October, the ancient Temple Chai Wathanaram, a Unesco World Heritage Site located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, came under eight feet of water within 10 minutes after a nearby dam ruptured.

In the surrounding countryside, hundreds of thousands of villagers have had to move to the second floor of their homes or evacuate. More than 300 people have been killed, washed away, or fallen victim to accidents resulting from the floods. The economic impact of this disaster is also significant: 13% of the area's rice crop has been destroyed, and five industrial zones have been completely shut down by the floods. In total, nearly 1,000 (mostly European, American, and Japanese-owned) factories have been forced to suspend their operations. Experts estimate that the disaster will cut Thailand's economic growth by 1.5%. It is the worst flood damage of the past 50 years.

The Thai government, formed in April and led by Yingluck Shinawatra, has struggled to meet the challenge. Ministers have given out conflicting information, provincial governors and regional authorities cannot agree on simple facts. Last week, a rumor led to the unnecessary evacuation of the northern districts of Bangkok. Yingluck has come off as out-of-touch and unable to manage communication within the government.

"If she had shown more leadership, the situation would not be so bad right now. She needs to improve her management skills," said political scientist Thawee Suraritikul. Since Sunday, the water level has been declining in the provinces of the central plain. Yingluck has said that Bangkok, which is protected by a network of roads acting as dikes, would not be affected.

A central question that still remains is why the authorities did not anticipate the intensity of rains and floods this year. Not everything, after all, can be blamed on the elements. "Our current situation is not the result of a natural disaster. Our problem is that we do not know how to manage water," insists Smith Dharmasaroja, director of the Foundation for Natural Disaster Alerting. "The government agencies responsible for irrigation and electricity were afraid of running out of water during the dry season, and they let the water accumulate in storage dams." Dharmasaroja says that the simultaneous "release" of this water from the dams was what ultimately caused the exceptional flooding.

Thais have also not been convinced of the need to protect Bangkok at all costs – "because it is the economic heart of the country," according to the head of the government – at the expense of the provinces, whose inhabitants have had their feet in water for over two months.

But now Bangkok is no longer protected from the surging waters of the north. The city of 9 million people has lost its natural defenses, due to the filling of most of the old canals and the almost total disappearance of underground water recovery areas. On Sunday night, officials from the Centre for Flood Emergencies asked people in flooded areas not to destroy the sandbag dams that have been placed around the industrial areas north of Bangkok.

Read the original article in French

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