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.

Flooding Rangsit 2011-10-23

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.

Flooding Phatum Thani 2011-10-23

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.

 

The Great Bangkok Songkran Bare Breast Debacle

Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year’s festival, a three-day holiday held each April at the height of the hot season.  The meaning of Songkran has been subject to much debate and over the past many years it has evolved into something much different than it originally was.  This year, however, Bangkok was caught up in a great Songkran scandal that, according to several local pundits, revealed the hypocrisy with which we choose to view “culture” and what is “appropriate”.

At its roots, Songkran is something of a harvest festival, a time of cleaning up after one year and getting ready for the next rice-planting season, which will begin when the rainy season arrives shortly after the peak of hot season.  Water has always played an important part in the Songkran celebration, and traditionally the holiday was celebrated by performing the “rot naam” (pouring of water) ceremony. 

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In this picture I took three years ago, school children dressed in traditional Thai outfits pour water over the hands of their elders.  This is a way of showing respect and blessing them. 

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In fact, this same ceremony is performed when a couple is married, as in this example from my Thai teacher’s wedding this past December.

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In addition to pouring water on the hands of elders, there is a religious aspect to the Songkran celebrations, where you pour water on the hands of monks and also over Buddha images, washing and blessing them.

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So those are the traditional celebrations of Songkran.  Given that Thailand is a hot, tropical country it is no surprise that along the way some amount of splashing about with the water also happened.  So Songkran started to get a reputation as being “the water festival” and was thus stylized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.  A little bit of playful, good natured splashing for the youngsters to engage in, if you will.

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Somewhere along the way, though, it evolved into something more: a water war with roving mercenaries with pump-action water guns.  This picture above is typical – families or young people fill up large tubs in the back of a pickup truck with water (usually with some blocks of ice in them) then drive around the city looking for revelers in other trucks or playing by the side of the road.  An impromptu water fight ensues.

Often, though, it isn’t just the revelers who are involved.  Anyone on the street – including those who are not interested in playing – are targeted with ice cold water.  A favorite target is passing motorcycle drivers and as you might imagine, there are any number of accidents in which motorcyclists lose control and crash after being splashed unexpectedly.

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In some sections of the city the celebrations turn into chaos, the streets shut down with people splashing each other with water and smearing each other with talcum powder.  Needless to say, the partying is fueled by substantial quantities of alcohol.

Which leads us to this year’s scandal.  Let me start by making clear that, while I don’t particularly enjoy the mess that Songkran has become, I also don’t have a bone to pick with it.  I either get out of town during the holidays or stay indoors to avoid unwanted splashing.

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The scandal began when video clips appeared showing a trio of young women – reportedly ages 13, 14, and 16 – dancing topless on a vehicle along Silom Road.  Worth noting is that Silom Road is adjacent to one of the more famous red light districts in Bangkok where you can find things much more racy than this.

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As you might imagine, there was a big fuss over this nudity and there were no shortage of pundits and officials tripping over themselves to proclaim what an insult to Thailand and Thai culture this was.  In a statement, Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat said, “the clip has negatively affected the image of Thai culture and that all parties involved with such behaviour should be punished, while asking police to give importance to this issue, for it destroys the country’s reputation.” (emphasis mine)

The girls surrendered to the police, were made to publicly apologize, and were fined 500 baht (about US$16) each, and released.

As for the hypocrisy that was pointed out by several observers?  Well, that comes in two parts.  The first is the “oh, that’s too damn funny” part.  Reportedly, at the time of this whole scandal, if you went to the website for the Thailand Ministry of Culture, the following art was displayed on the page banner:

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The picture shows some young Thai girls dancing topless in what looks like a water festival, right?  This was quickly picked up on by the denizens of the internet who hooted and hollered, posting and tweeting about how the Ministry of Culture was both promoting and punishing topless Thai teens at the same time.

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In no time at all – as one observer pointed out, on a Sunday, nonetheless! – the nubile nipples were replaced with this classical Thai picture which, if you look closely, also has some bare breasts displayed in it.

Several other commentators pointed out that the impromptu redecorating of the Ministry of Culture’s website wasn’t the real hypocrisy, though.  They explained that the real hypocrisy is that Thai society has long treated women and girls poorly.  The sex industry here, the vast majority of which serves Thai men, not tourists, is founded on the treatment of women as sex objects.  Young women and girls are sold into sexual slavery and rape is often not reported or, when reported, the women are treated as the guilty party for bringing shame on their family by not keeping quiet.

Now, I want to make clear that I’m not singling out Thai culture for its hypocritical treatment of women.  I’m just reporting on the controversy that erupted here.  Plus, hypocritcal treatment of women is something that is too common almost everywhere in the world.  But as a number of cooler-headed commentators pointed out about this event, the trio of topless girls aren’t the cause of the problem.  They are the symptom of larger societal attitudes that need to be discussed and addressed.  I wonder if this event will provide a catalyst for that discussion to begin?

 

Going to the well

One of the most fundamental aspects of the human experience, one that unites us with all the other mammals, is the search for safe drinking water.  When I arrived in Khrungthep it was with the warning from some legitimate sources (as well as the conventional world-traveler-going-to-a-developing-country wisdom) not to drink the tap water.

Actually, the water from Khrungthep’s Metropolitan Waterworks Authority is very clean and exceeds the standards set out by international agencies.  There is an English language page on their website that includes actual quality performance metrics – the most recently available ones are from August and September – as well as this interesting investigatory article from the Bangkok Post.  Generally, it is agreed, any problem with water quality is due to the pipes in the delivery system, not the water quality from the treatment plant itself.

P1020457 When I first moved here we purchased our water in 5-litre plastic bottles from the supermarket and would carry them home, going through four or five bottles a week.  This was a chore and, not realizing until afterwards that there actually is some plastic recycling going on here, I actually cut the bottles in half nesting the halves together, filling a suitcase with them for my trip back to the United States for the Christmas holidays, two months after I moved here.  Needless to say, customs was a bit surprised but impressed with my dedication to recycling.

Right: Out of water again using the home delivery system of water!

(As a side note, yes there is plastic recycling here but it isn’t curbside.  Instead, the building maintenance team roots through the trash to find plastic bottles, stomps on them, and then bags them to sell to a recycling company.)

After a few months of doing this, we finally found suppliers for home delivered water.  There are two in the greater Khrungthep area, Sprinkle being the larger of the two.  They pride themselves in their English and Japanese language service although I ultimately had Tawn set up the account because of miscommunication I was having with the operator. 

P1020461 So for the past twenty months we’ve had three 19-litre sturdy plastic bottles in our storage room and when a bottle runs empty, we put it outside our door the following Saturday morning with a coupon (buy those in advance in books of 24, at about 95 baht a bottle – 5 baht a litre) underneath it.  By late Saturday afternoon a new bottle had replaced it.  A happy system that is pretty environmentally friendly and cost effective.

Left: Carrying an empty container to the water vending machine downstairs.  Those village women have nothing on me.

As we prepared for our move into the new condo, one of the things I wanted to explore was the possibility of installing a water filtration system so we could stop the delivery of water bottles.  This was primarily because the new condo doesn’t have a storage room so space will be at a premium. 

P1020472 Also, I have read more articles at places like ThaiVisa.com of long term expats who used filtration systems in their homes and found the water to be perfectly drinkable.  Tawn’s parents have a large filtration system as do most locals, only the poorest of whom actually drink water straight from the tap without some additional treatment.

Right: The water vending machine near the juristic office.

At the same time that we were exploring our options, around mid-October, we ran out of coupons for the home delivery system.  Not wanting to buy another booklet of coupons and then have to deal with getting a refund for unused ones or transferring the service to the condo, we decided to try an alternative. 

P1020466 The juristic office here at Asoke Place had just allowed a company called Good Drinks to install a water filtration and vending machine in the stairwell outside the juristic office.  There, for just 1.5 baht per litre, we could fill up our bottles with triple-filtered, reverse osmosis processed, and ozone-treated water whenever we wanted, day or night.

So now, like a villager going to the well, we carry our empty 19-litre bottles from Sprinkle (which we’ll need to return to them soon to get our deposit back) down from the 25th floor to the 10th, refill them, and carry them back up to the apartment. 

Left: Using up our supply of coins to buy water.

The water tastes a little flat – reverse osmosis removes a lot of the minerals that give water its flavor – but it is clean and cheap.  Plus the vending machine is a great way to use up our supply of one-baht coins.

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In another few days, the trek to the well should no longer be an issue as we’ll be in the condo.  But the plumber tells us he is having problems installing the water filter, so maybe we’ll go full circle and be back to buying the 5-litre bottles from the store and carting them home until the installation is complete.

Such is life by the watering hole.