Thailand's blueprint to rein in fallout from floods and drought

Hundreds died and businesses lost billion in last year's floods, caused in part by overflow from dams filled to hedge against drought. This year, Thailand is testing different prevention measures.

Altaf Qadri/AP/File
Thai residents wade through floodwaters in Bangkok, Thailand, in this October 2011 file photo.

Despite seeing his 60 acres of rice paddies covered in more than 10 feet of water for three months during late 2011, farmer Tawee Wongsan is sanguine about flooding this year. “I don't think there will be flooding this year,” he says. “The water in the big dams is not so high like last year.”

Last year's floods killed more than 800 people and caused an estimated $40 billion damage to the country's $345 billion economy, which is the world's 25th  largest. Water covered several districts of Bangkok and swamped industrial zones that include vital automobile and electronics sectors, disrupting global supply chains. 

The floods were actually caused in part by reaction to a drought the previous year. To hedge against water shortage, Thailand's dams were allowed to stay almost full throughout 2011. But after months of heavy rainfall, the eventual spillover met an already sodden floodplain.

This year, Thailand could face a “drought or flood conundrum” again.

Yesterday, Thailand's Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department said that a total of 39 provinces, mostly in the agricultural north and northeast, were already experiencing water shortages. But elsewhere in the country, heavy rain has been falling, prompting authorities to aim to reduce water-levels in dams to around 45 percent by May. “It is 50-50 whether we have flood or drought in some places this year,” says Rungruang Lertsirivorakul of the Department of Geotechnology at Khon Kaen University. 

One possible solution to the dilemma, says Matthew McCartney of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), is to use floodwater to fight drought.

“Redirecting floodwaters into large groundwater aquifers could diminish the magnitude of destructive floods while increasing the ability of Thailand and other countries to maintain or even boost crop production in the face of increasing climate uncertainty,” according to an IWMI statement.

Mr. McCartney, a hydrologist based in neighboring Laos, says that implementing the aquifer system means finding the best locations for the basins and might mean setting aside 100 square kilometers (39 square miles) of land for each, in turn raising issues such as compensation for farmers and landholders.

The aquifers, along with a proposed 200-km (124.27 mile) floodway around the west of Bangkok, and the building of more dams, are among the longer-term flood prevention measures proposed in Thailand. As things stand, only around half of Thailand's 23 million acres of rice fields are irrigated or have access to regular water supply, but at the same time, some of these areas are vulnerable to flooding.

But for now, the focus is on projects such as canal dredging and other short-term measures that can help prevent flooding this year and avoid renewed damage to the economy.

“Last year, Thailand's economy was predicted to grow around 4 percent,” says Supavud Saicheua, an economist with Bangkok-based Phatra Securities. “However the final growth figure was just 0.1 percent,” a falloff that was almost entirely caused by the floods, he says.

The outlook for 2012 is better, and Thailand's exports rose in February for the first time since the floods. But with less than half of the plants in flood-hit areas fully operational again, overall industrial output remains down. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) predicts a 5.5 percent expansion for Thailand this year, but cautions that post-flood spending and rebuilding will be a key driver of this growth.

Flood prevention could be key to Thailand's continued attractiveness to foreign investors such as Honda, Toyota, and Western Digital. Consultants at Kearney ranking the country as the world's 16th  biggest recipient of FDI in 2011, despite political turmoil in 2010.

Tawee's farm is about 12 miles from the Rojana industrial park near Thailand's old capital Ayutthaya, a World Heritage site that saw its centuries-old temples and palace ruins submerged during the floods.

Japanese carmaker Honda reopened its factory at Rojana on March 31, and while the company will not release a final analysis of the losses incurred by the floods until late April, it estimates a decline in worldwide sales of around 260,000 cars.

A Honda spokesperson told the Monitor in an e-mail that the company appreciates the flood prevention efforts undertake by the Thai government, but adds “we did consider the possibility of building floodwalls within our plant.”

Instead, however, the Rojana park management has started construction of floodwalls at the facility, which will stand 19 feet above sea level and 12.5 feet above the base of the levee already surrounding the park, if finished as scheduled for completion by August 2012.

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