Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Water, water everywhere

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

If I loved this country any less, I would probably be living and working in Thailand. I love many things about Thailand and the Thai people including the contradictions in their culture, which, by the way, are just as plentiful as ours. But what I love most about the Thais is the way they have valiantly tried to protect their cultural heritage even as they aggressively marched towards becoming a tiger economy.

Thus, it’s been with some measure of sadness that I have been monitoring the situation in Thailand over the last few weeks. The immediate concern, of course, was for an older brother and his family and some friends and former students who have made Bangkok their home for the last couple of years. Fortunately, keeping track of their situation has become a lot easier thanks to social media. Many of my friends in Thailand have been assiduously posting updates on their situations in various social networking sites for the benefit of everyone else who have to contend with what is often hysterical reportage from the traditional media. Truly, one of the great benefits of social networking is that one gets to hear about developments straight from the people concerned themselves, without the static that usually accompanies third-party reporting.

I was also worried for the temples and the other landmarks of the city. Initial media reports screamed about the possibility of the Grand Palace, Bangkok’s majestic main tourist draw and former home of Thai monarchs, being inundated by waters from the Chao Phraya river. Fortunately, while floodwater did enter the complex, the damage has not been massive so far. I am aware that some people might find my concern for Bangkok’s cultural heritage out of place given the fact that I am Filipino, but I have always believed world heritage sites belong to all people of this world regardless of where they are.

So yes, parts of Bangkok are under water. To be specific, about seven of the city’s 50 districts are under water, with some parts flooded by as high as four meters. Floodwater has reached the runway of Bangkok’s domestic airport Don Muang, forcing authorities to close it down. Those alarming pictures of planes seemingly floating on water, were taken from this airport. Reports would later indicate that those picturesque photos were of planes that have been decommissioned, in short, they were planes that had no engines! Many countries, including the Philippines, have issued travel advisories warning citizens against traveling to Thailand but the country’s main international airport, Suvarnabhumi Airport, has remained operational and is actually flood-free.

For now, the inner areas of Bangkok have survived the peak tides that were scheduled to hit over the weekend. Most were worried that the network of dikes and sandbags walls that have been built precisely to protect Bangkok would succumb to the rush of floodwater from other parts of Thailand. My friends asked me to convey to everyone else that the situation is not as dire as what others would project it to be. Of course, they are having problems sourcing drinking water and other basic commodities such as diapers for infants, but that’s mainly because of panic buying and hoarding. They expect things to normalize in the next few days as the flooding recedes and clear weather begins to set in. Actually, they said that the flooding in some parts of Thailand has been there for almost three months now and it was only when the floods threatened to hit Bangkok that everyone else in the world sat up and noticed.

But the rehabilitation work that needs to be done in Thailand is daunting. Many industrial estates were affected including those that produced most of the world’s computer parts. Some predict that there will be a spike in the prices of computer parts in the next few months because of the flooding. Thailand’s government has announced a massive rehabilitation plan that would cost around $30 billion. And there is ongoing debate over the capability of Thailand’s new Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra (sister of deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra) to lead Thailand out of the mess. Thailand’s first female PM was widely seen as a political novice who has been unprepared to deal with complexities of managing a country. There are those who insist that this situation is similar to the one prevailing in our country at the moment.

The flooding that hit Thailand has parallels with the situation operating in our country. We’ve also been prone to flooding in the last months. What has been ironic though is that the situation in Thailand has happened despite a well thought-out irrigation strategy that aimed to collect rainwater during the monsoon months to be used for farming purposes throughout the year. This strategy has enabled Thailand’s agricultural industry to boom in the last few decades. Proof, indeed, that nature cannot be reined in although I dread the thought of people in this country using that justification to defend the absence of similar strategies to store rainwater during the monsoon months for use during summer.

The reality is that we’re in a “feast-or-famine” situation. Some parts of the year would see heavy flooding, but at the same time, experts predict that the drought season would also be severe. Our dams are bursting at the seams at the moment, but that doesn’t mean there would be more than enough to tide us over during the months when there would be no rainfall.

And like what happened here during the onset of heavy flooding, accusations that authorities deliberately sacrificed some areas in order to protect others were also prevalent in Thailand. Citizens around areas in Bangkok launched protests and even destroyed floodgates in order to help alleviate the flooding in their areas even as these meant exposing industrial estates in Bangkok to flooding. In our case, there have been accusations that flooding in some parts of the country happened because authorities tried to “protect” other parts of the country such as Metro Manila.

And just like what we see here, quite a number of citizens have refused to leave their homes even when the floodwater was already seeping into their homes. This is a cultural phenomenon that many people don’t understand; but really, the concept of “home” and the act of defending it defies logic. To most of us, a home is not just a structure of brick and wood—it is a reservoir of many things, memories, a sense of identity, etc.

But what we need to remember is that water—and nature in itself—is difficult to control. As we learned in physics, it seeks its own level. We can try to put in place mechanisms to re-route floodwaters, but there is only so much we can do. What we need are more collaborative and long-term strategies to address the problem that is expected to become a constant problem in the coming months. We need to learn how to see floodwaters as a force that need to be managed although we cannot possibly control it.

***

I would have to end this column with a rant. In the last five days, I have been largely difficult to reach because I lost my cell phone last week. I was issued a SIM card with my old number last Friday and was told that mobile services would be re-established within two hours. It didn’t happen on Friday. I called Globe’s hotline Saturday and was assured it was going to happen within twenty-four hours. It still didn’t happen as of Sunday. I called Sunday afternoon and they told me there was no record of earlier transactions and I had to make another report. I was still incommunicado as of Monday. They finally got around to reconnecting me to the world yesterday, after five frigging days.

What can I say, the service of Globe sucks.

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