Rainy Season Brings Early Flooding

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Once again, rainy season has arrived in Thailand. The skies fill with ominous, dark clouds and once the wind picks up you know you have just a few minutes in which to seek shelter, otherwise you will be drenched by the downpour. While the rain usually follows a consistent schedule, arriving in the late afternoon and early evening, Thursday morning the rain rebeled, giving us two hours of heavy rain at dawn followed by another two hours of drizzle.

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That was too much for the drainage system to handle and our end of the soi (small road) flooded quickly. Sidewalks were covered by a few inches and water in the road was deep enough to stall a few cars.

(Short video)

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The security and maintenance staff at our condo erected a barrier of sandbags, trying to minimize the amount of water that flowed into the first level of the car park.

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Despite their efforts, the entire ground floor was wet.The basement level was flooded a few inches deep as the sump pump struggled to clear the water. The elevators were out of service once the mechanical rooms were breached by the water.

While most of the city recovered pretty quickly from the heavy rains, the morning commute was a mess and by late afternoon, several areas still had standing water. Just wait until September and October, the months when the rain is generally the heaviest!

 

Last Word on the Flooding

Quick (and hopefully final) update to the flooding situation here in Bangkok:

While the waters have started to slowly recede, many areas on the northern, western, and eastern edges of the city continue to be under a meter or more of water.  This water has been there for, in some cases, nearly a month and has stagnated.  Needless to say, residents of these areas are furious and have taken to tearing openings in some of the sandbag barriers to enable some of the water to more rapidly drain away.

In the past few weeks, what had just been piles of sandbags in the Sukhumvit area (where I live) has turned into more extreme defenses against the likelihood of flooding, a vote of no-confidence in a government that has continued to be incapable of communicating useful information in a timely manner.  Thankfully, by this point it seems unlikely that we will see any water but nobody is removing the defenses yet.

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Outside an office building in the Ploenchit area, two rows of sandbags with a wall of boards sealed at its base with silicone or tar to hold back water.  Of course, vehicles are unable to enter or exit this building so, like many buildings around the city, business is being impacted.

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Along the road leading up to the international airport, mega-sandbags were laid out and pumps installed in case the road itself needed to be turned into a canal to channel the water out of the city.  The airport’s retaining wall was increased to 2.5 meters (almost 9 feet) and, despite having been built in the midst of a natural flood plain, the airport has thus far remained dry. 

Don Meuang
Photo courtesy Bangkok Post

Not so the old airport, Don Meuang, which before the flood was being used as an air force base and for limited domestic service.  It is still closed with more than a meter of water covering the entire airfield.  It will cost millions of dollars and take at least two months to bring this airport back into service.

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As of last week, walls and other barriers were still being constructed.  Here, a view from the inside of the Villa Supermarket near Sukhumvit Soi 33, looking outside to the street.  A wall of concrete blocks and sandbags was built, necessitating a climb over the wall with your groceries.

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The subway stations, exits at a few of which were closed because of the flooding, had flood barriers installed.  These were new additions but were added very quickly that I imagine they must have been prepared in advance and stored for such an event.  I’m unclear why there’s a gap at the corner but I guess they would close it with sandbags?

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Finally, while at Bangkok Hospital this past week, off Phetchaburi Road, I noticed the wide range of flood protection they had put into place, including concrete walls around the base of escalators so water wouldn’t damage the machinery.  Kind of awkward to climb the wobbly wooden steps to get over the wall.  Perhaps it is part of their plan to treat more slip-and-fall patients!

Here is a short video showing some of the other flood preparations at Bangkok Hospital.

As mentioned above, I’m hoping this is the last entry I write on this subject.  The amount of damage and suffering in Thailand has been immense – 594 deaths as of this morning – and yet I’m not sure that there’s anything more I can add to the subject after this point.  I’ll return to other subjects from this point onwards including an update on my attempts at container gardening.

 

Riding Around to View the Flood

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Sunday morning, the city quiet as many residents have fled the flooding, I rode my bicycle for a first-hand look at the situation in the old city and along the river.  What I found was not as bad as flooding further north, but it left me with the realization that our relative dryness is a tentative state, one that could easily change.

Bangkok Flood Map

My ride took me west into the old city, around the Grand Palace, and then north along Sam Sen Road to the Rama VII Bridge.  Most of the way, I was on the road closest to the river, giving me a chance to evaluate the neighborhoods.  Like a checkerboard, some neighborhoods had water while adjacent neighborhoods were still dry.  The dry neighborhoods were taking no chances, though, with walls of sandbags or brick and cement erected in front of shops, buildings, and homes.

Location 1: The Emporium

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These photos were actually taken Friday night, when Tawn and I drove to the Emporium shopping center at Sukhumvit Soi 24 to watch a film.  Both parking structures were packed, not with shoppers’ cars but with cars that had been parked there for safekeeping.  Cars were double parked, left in neutral gear so they could be pushed out of the way.  To park in the only available space, we had to push six other cars out of the way.  I can tell you from this experience that classic Mercedes are very heavy and do not roll easily.

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We noticed that someone had parked a pale yellow Rolls Royce Phantom with an auspicious license plate with the numbers 9999 on it.  (The current king is Rama IX, so nine is considered a lucky number.)  Inquiring with the guard, I understand that the car’s owner is someone very high up in one of the government’s ministries.  The guard also shared that this person has parked 26 cars in the lot.  Perhaps the government’s scheme to encourage car ownership is working too well?

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All of these cars had a notice placed on them (after they were not moved at the end of the night) asking the owners to contact the management office before leaving the car park.  Presumably, there will be some sort of a fine for unauthorized long-term parking.  I would guess some people probably won’t have to pay that fine.

Location 2: Phra Nakhon District

The ride to Phra Nakon, the oldest district of Bangkok, was smooth as so few cars were on the road.  Along the way, streets were dry and canals were at close to their normal level.  When I came up to Khlong (canal) Khu Meuang Derm near the back side of the Ministry of Defence, I encountered the first flooding.  While not deep – about 10 cm (4 inches), it covered most of the blocks adjacent to the canal.

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I rode around the north side of the Grand Palace where the street had moderate flooding (the far two lanes in this picture) in some areas.  The entire road around Sanam Luang, the large field to the north of the Grand Palace, was flooded a bit more, with the entire road under about 15 cm (6 inches) of water.

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The Grand Palace was open for business (tourists note: the Grand Palace is open every day, no matter what any scam artists may try to tell you) but there were few visitors.  The entry gate, pictured here, was under about 30 cm (1 foot) of water, requiring visitors to balance on sand bags as they made their way inside.

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Around the corner from the Grand Palace, closer to the river, is Maharat Road leading to Thammasat University.  Flooding was more severe in this neighborhood and a barrier had been built in the street to contain the water.  Vendors were still working on the sidewalks and residents (and monks from the adjacent Wat Mahathat) were coming and going as best they could.  One vendor explained that the area had been flooded for the past four days.  When asked whether the water was still rising or was falling, he replied that it depended on the tides.

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One block away from the river, Na Phrathat Road runs along the west edge of Sanam Luang, passing the National Theatre and National Museum.  It was closed to through traffic and has about 15 cm (6 inches) of standing water.

Location 3: Sam Sen Road, Dusit District

Heading north from Phra Nakhon, I rode along Sam Sen Road through the Dusit District.  There, I found the same checkerboard pattern of flooding.  Some stretches I rode through the water that reached the bottom of my pedals, about 15 cm (6 inches) high, although waves caused by passing vehicles left me with wet shoes.  There were points where the roads were impassable, so I cut east one block, rode a few blocks north, and then returned to Sam Sen Road to find it dry again.

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The dry areas looked like they might not be dry much longer.  Here, I passed through an otherwise dry neighborhood and found water bubbling up through the manhole cover.  Passing motorbike riders gazed warily at the water, which ran across the road and into the storm drains.

Location 4: Bang Sue District

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Underneath two railway bridges just south of the Rama VII automobile bridge in the Bang Sue district, the river threatens to spill over its banks and an extra layer of sandbags marks a last line of defence.  The bridge belongs to the State Railways of Thailand.  Just to the right of the frame is a second bridge (to the right of the crane) for the under-construction pink rail transit line.

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To the left of the previous picture (of the bridge), the road comes immediately adjacent to the brimming river, right at the entrance to Khlong (canal) Sung.  The water gate for the canal is shut in order to protect the district from flooding.  Soldiers from the army were on hand monitoring the situation and adding sandbags as necessary.

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Just a short distance north, I rode across the Rama VIII Bridge and stopped to take pictures.  There were several people fishing from the bridge, but I noticed this man who was fishing from the waterfront park underneath the bridge.  Because of the flooding, it is hard to tell where the river ends and the park begins.

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In the same waterfront park, a boy ran through the water as buses passed on a moderately flooded frontage road.  After having pedaled about 30 km, I headed inland past the closed and sandbagged Chatuchak Weekend Market (which I’ve never seen closed on a weekend!), taking the Skytrain home from the Mo Chit station.

Conclusions:

While I didn’t travel further north into the more severely affected areas of the city, what I saw was enough to make me realize that even though we’ve passed this week without flooding in many of the central parts of the city, those areas that are still dry, remain so only because of luck and limited rainfall.  Water is bubbling up through the drains and seeping through the sandbags and dikes; it seems inevitable that some of those defenses will fail before the excess water is moved safely to the Gulf of Thailand. 

I suspect that the risk to the area I live in is relatively minimal, but I think we have another week or two before the city as a whole is out of the gravest danger.

 

Updated Final Time: Some Information about the Flooding

Updated – Third video added.  This is the last time I’ll time stamp this!  Tawn shared this very cute and informative 4-minute video clip with me, which explains what is happening with the flooding and why the risk to Bangkok is severe.  It is done with clever animation and is actually quite useful… which leads me to believe that the Thai government had absolutely nothing to do with it.

The best part is how they compare the flood waters with blue whales, which makes the whole thing much more comprehensible.  There are English subtitles, so please enjoy.

A second video was released Thursday, which further explains the situation and gives suggestions about how to assess the actual risk your home is at for flooding.

The government has announced that the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok will peak around 6 pm Saturday, so that is expected to be the point at which flooding, which has now spread into 5 districts in the city, will explan further.

The third video is out, this one listing the three steps you should take to prepare for the flood.  It really is so simple, right?

 

Update on Flooding in Bangkok

For more than a week, residents of Bangkok have been bracing for the floodwaters, stacking sandbags and stocking supplies.  With the exception of a few districts which have been hit, most of the city waits in a sort of suspended animation, frustrated by a lack of information and an abundance of government incompetence.

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To be certain, Thailand’s worst flooding in fifty years has affected parts of the city, especially in the north and northeast near Rangsit, Don Meuang, Sai Mai, and Minburi districts.  But the majority of the city is still dry.  We are told every day that the next few days will be critical.  Each day, the anxiety increases.

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Throughout the city, flyovers and expressways became car parks as clever residents decided to park their cars on the only high ground they could find.  The effect, predictably, was that traffic came to a standstill and the movement of emergency vehicles and supplies was hampered. In the picture above, two of the three lanes on the left are actually parked cars.  Yes, I know it looks like a normal traffic jam but in this case the cars are empty.  The government has been pleading with people not to park on the roads, but for some unknown reason has been slow to actually tow the cars.

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Each morning I trade text messages with a friend who lives in the Sathorn district.  “You have any water yet?”  “No, not yet.  You?”  Our messages are a microcosm of the confusion that is frustrating residents across the city.  While the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has done an admirable job and has communicated effectively with residents, the national government led by Yingluck Shinawatra, who wants to be in charge of the flood response, has been a disaster. 

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The FROC (Flood Relief Operations Command – they even chose an English name for it!) is accurately depicted in this cartoon.  Different people are working at cross-pusposes and the announcements from different department and ministerial heads contradict and confuse.  A Tweet that has spread like wildfire reads, “The intellectuals fill sandbags while the buffaloes make the plan.”  As you might imagine, the government is seen as the buffaloes, and the comparison is very unfair to buffaloes.

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Sunday afternoon I explored my neighborhood, to see how people are preparing.  The number of sandbags have increased markedly since Friday.  I would estimate that about 80% of shops and buildings have built some sort of barriers.  Others (like the one with the blue doors) have not, but that may be because the doors are either watertight or the goods inside are raised off the floor.

Grocery and convenience stores are out of many supplies, including bottled water.  The only bottled water on sale at the local market was Evian, as everything else was sold out. 

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I also noticed several buildings taking even more extreme measures, building temporary walls of brick and mortar.  This picture is along Sukhumvit Road between Ekamai and Thong Lor, not an area that I thought was particularly prone to flooding.  I like that they have added steps.  Interestingly, they did not build steps on the other side.  Presumably, once the threat of flooding subsides, they will remove the wall.

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Sunday afternoon, I heard that the water gates for Saen Saeb canal, a major east-west artery that is near our condo, had been opened to help ease the flooding in the river and move the water towards the Gulf of Thailand.  Curious, I rode to the canal, only to find the water at its usual level, or perhaps even a little lower than normal.  Canal boat service, which a few days ago had been reported suspended because of high water levels, was running.  Again, another example of lack of clear information.  And this is happening in both English and Thai, mind you.

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Back at our condo, a sandbag barrier has been in place for the past ten days.  Our soi (alley) is prone to moderate flooding when there are heavy rains, so the chance of flooding seems higher just by virtue of that fact.  Thankfully, we’ve had four consecutive days of dry weather, but the water elsewhere in Bangkok is presumably still a risk for us.

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A view from the inside of the car park, showing how the street is about two feet (70 cm) higher than the car park floor.  Actually, more accurately, the street is only about one foot higher.  The driveway is built to provide a natural barrier, rising a foot from the street before descending two feet into the car park.

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Inside the car park, the elevator and electrical room are barricaded with sandbags.  The maintenance team built a brick wall about 40 cm high just inside the electrical room.  I’ve observed that people keep adding to the defenses already in place, leading me to conclude that they know something I don’t.  When I ask them, though, they explain that they don’t know if or when the water is coming, but assume that since there has been no good news (“Water recedes!”), this must be the calm before the storm.

 

Flooding in Thailand

You have perhaps heard that since August, Thailand has been coping with the worst flooding the country has experienced in 50 years.  From the far north in Chiang Mai and other mountainous provinces, through the central plains, and now down to the region closest to the Gulf of Thailand, the country has experienced widespread destruction.  At least 297 people have died, 700,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed, and estimates are that the waters could wind up costing the country US$5 billion, or about 1% of GDP. 

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The region currently affected is the southern half of the Central Plains, the rice bowl of Thailand.  Nearly 15 million acres have been flooded, of which 3.4 million acres are farmland.  The above graphic shows flooded areas in light blue.  As you can see, the province of Ayutthaya, home to the ruins of the second capital of the Kingdom of Siam, is the most severely affected.

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Many of the major ruins, temples, and historical sites in Ayutthaya have been affected by flood waters, some areas more than 2 meters deep.  The United Nations is sending teams to help survey the UNESCO World Heritage sites and offer assistance.

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The muddy waters of the Chao Phraya river cannot easily be contained, sweeping into cities and villages along its banks.  Most of central Thailand is low-lying land.  There are signs that those who live upriver from Bangkok feel that their land has been sacrificed in the name of keeping Bangkok safe.  Since the last major flooding in Bangkok in 1995, extensive measures have been put in place to reduce the risk of flooding for the capital.  One of those measure is the deliberate flooding of farmland in the provinces north of the city, the so-called “monkey cheeks” approach.  Without a doubt, the impact of flooding farmland is much less than the impact of flooding major cities.  Nonetheless, that is cold comfort for the familes directly impacted by those policies.

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Unfortunately, the flooding has not been limited to farmland.  Between Ayutthaya and Bangkok lie many industrial parks, home to manufacturing centers for companies from around the globe.  As an example, Honda’s factory, which accounts for some 5% of its global production, was flooded.  Pictured above, new Honda cars sit in the factory’s parking lot, some submerged and others partially floating.

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Fortunately, most of Bangkok has thus far avoided the worst of it.  Some of the northern districts, near the old Don Meuang Airport and Rangsit, have been affected, although not nearly as bad as elsewhere in the country.  Our neighborhood, which is near an area at risk for flooding, is bracing for the next five days or so, until the surge that is coming down the river has safely passed the city. 

A knee-high wall of sandbags has been erected around the base of our condo building.  We have stocked up on bottled water, canned food, and other necessities.  Supplies in the stores are low with many thinly-stocked shelves, a situation caused both by people stockpiling essentials but also because of disruptions in the supply chain.  In fact, Tawn reported today that Starbucks has run out of espresso beans, some cups, and napkins.  That, if anything, must be a sign of how bad it is!  (Only kidding…)

Fortunately, there was no rain today.  But there is an 80% chance of thunderstorms tonight and the rest of week looks stormy.  I hope it gets no worse and, for the more than half of Thai provinces affected by the flooding, that the situation rapidly improves.

 

Escape the Rains

A news report in Wednesday’s paper indicated that a weak La Niña system is building up in the western Pacific, which will result in heavier than normal rainfall throughout Asia.  Sure enough seems to be the case here in Bangkok where, despite reports of a severe drought in the northeast of the country, we have had quite a bit of rain to kick off rainy season. 

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Late Monday morning we had several hours of nonstop torrential rain, much more than we usually get at one time.  As you can see from the picture taken from my balcony, the soi (alley) on which we live was flooded enough to brush the undersides of passing taxis.

My poor maid was caught in the rain while eating lunch on her way from one of the other houses she cleans to our condo.  She was eating at a streetside vendor and stayed there under and umbrella, hoping to wait it out.  When the vendor asked where she was heading, he shook his head and told her that the area floods and that she had better head out right there and then, or else abandon all hope.

Sure enough, when she arrived at the condo she was soaked.  I told her that next time it is raining so hard she should just call and cancel; no need to brave the floods.  A bit later she pointed out that where she lives out by Sukhumvit Soi 101, the sois don’t flood.  With all the expensive condos around here, she tsked, the streets shouldn’t flood.

So much for location, location, location!

I’m headed to the airport.  Talk to you soon.