By Regina Quadir
Thailand has a tropical climate with monsoon rains that come every summer. In 2011, the rains were unusually heavy, with a sequence of typhoons sweeping across southeast Asia. Regions of Thailand are now experiencing the worst floods in over fifty years, as water immerses villages, farms, and factories. The volume of water is so vast that more than half the country has already been flooded.
This flood not only affects Thailand, but the entire world. Thailand is the world’s largest manufacturer of rice, rubber, and computer hard drives, accounting for more than 25% of world production. Over 12.8 million people have been affected, and as of December 2011 the World Bank estimates that damages reached $45 billion.
Half a world away in the United States, it is hard to truly grasp how the people of Thailand are coping with the disastrous effects of the flood. We interviewed Dr. Nuttapong Wongjindanon, an epidemiologist with CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine – Immigrant and Refugee Health Program working in our Thailand office. He shares a firsthand account of how the flooding has affected him and the people of Thailand.
Where are you staying in Thailand and how has that area been affected in relation to other provinces in Thailand?
I live in the Bangyai district. It’s in Nonthaburi province, northwest of Bangkok and about 20 kilometers from our office. There was a large volume of water from northern Thailand trying to move southward to the Gulf of Thailand. Each local authority in each province tried to protect its own areas from floods. With inappropriate management and coordination, neighboring provinces around Bangkok were forced to absorb massive amounts of water, including Nonthaburi province. All districts in Nonthaburi were inundated with water, more than 1 meter high in most areas.
What was your experience with the evacuation process?
Unfortunately the official warnings came too late and there was much confusion. The night of October 18, sirens from ambulances and emergency vehicles were heard throughout the night. Rumors were spread about “broken dikes” and a pickup truck with a loud speaker driving through the streets was announcing warning messages. Residents were told to evacuate within 24 hours to safe areas because the water had come through the broken dikes and would reach our area that night.
My family evacuated (with suitcases packed the week before) that afternoon for Bangkok. Many families were evacuating at the same time so traffic was a problem, especially with less streets available due to floods. It took us about 2 hours to gain 5 kilometers on motorcycle. There were no taxis available, and I had already taken my car the week before to a relative’s home in Chonburi province, an area that was not in the water’s path. Some families decided to stay, including my neighbors who told me later that the water came strong that night and it took only hours to fill the whole village with chest deep water.
Before my house was flooded, many areas were already underwater, including streets between my house and office. For about two weeks, I went to work on a bus as I watched the water level on the streets rise from ankle height to completely covering wheels of small cars. Many streets turned into canals/rivers with boats and cars submerged. Several cars were knocked down by water. Buses stopped running and taxis disappeared from the area, making it very hard to travel back home as no taxi would agree to take passengers back.
Shops ran out of supplies and, with shelves emptied, were forced to close down. People had to travel to dry places to buy food and water to carry home. Some merchants took this opportunity to double the prices of items such as sandbags, boots, drinking water, fresh food, etc. We were all anxious about how events would unfold.
How does the aftermath of this disaster compare to other relief efforts you have been a part of?
It cannot be compared. The affected areas are large and heavily populated. I was not involved with any official disaster relief teams, as I was also struggling with this disaster as a victim. The damage is much greater than any relief received.
Water was receding from chest to hip level in November-December. My wife and I went back to visit our house a few times and this meant travelling via a bus for 1 hour, military truck for 5 kilometers, a boat for a few more kilometers, and then on foot through hip level water for a few hundred meters. We brought some medical supplies and food in our backpacks that had been donated by other Thais who were not affected by the floods. We gave these supplies to our neighbors and to those who decided to stay in the areas along the routes.
What are the most important priorities that relief efforts are focusing on?
The main efforts have been to provide people with food and clean drinking water. Rescue teams have also been looking for people with helicopters and rescue boats to remove them from affected areas to temporary shelters. Relief workers have also been distributing “survival bags” consisting of canned food and bottled drinking water that can last for a few days.
What diseases have you been monitoring?
Diarrhea, food-poisoning, skin diseases and conjunctivitis. These were found and reported in many temporary shelters for flooded victims.
How effective have relief efforts been?
Some areas have been left unattended and neglected, due to limited manpower and the extent of the affected areas and numbers of victims. Some communities have set up their own relief forces. This voluntary non-governmental relief was set up because much of the government’s relief efforts could not provide enough support.
What have been some of the more difficult aspects of the disaster relief work in Thailand?
Relief work came too late in some areas. Although the military provided support by sending troops with trucks and boats to assist people, some areas were too deep to reach. A lot of food and supplies have been donated but those who lived near the distribution points usually took most of the supplies for themselves and those who lived far away or came late had nothing left. This created disappointment and caused arguments. In addition, there was no coordination or collaboration between various disaster relief teams, resulting in duplication of work in many areas. Some families received a month of supplies, while other families received nothing at all.
What can people in Thailand and other countries do to be prepared for future flooding or other disasters?
People should not just wait for help from local authorities without doing anything themselves. They need to set up their own taskforces and working groups in order to create an effective warning system and coordinate with one another. They should also have their own emergencies supplies on hand.
A big thank you to Dr. Wongjindanon for sharing his experience with us and helping us better understand how the flood has affected Thailand. Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.