I traveled back to Thailand, my family’s homeland, in December to assist my grandparents in repairing the flood damage to their home in Bangkok. The weeks I spent there talking to people and seeing the city has given me a better idea of what the flooding has done to my homeland. A country that was already facing a great deal of challenges was hit by a natural disaster of historic proportions.
Thailand experienced its worst flooding in over a half century when heavy monsoon rains inundated much of the country in October, 2011. The flooding, which continued for weeks, claimed over 790 lives, inundated nearly 15 million acres of land, and caused $45 billion dollars in damage according to the World Bank. If that estimate is correct it would be the fourth costliest natural disaster ever recorded.
The damage from the flood has been enormous; physically, economically and politically. Millions of Thais had their homes severely damaged or destroyed, with the water in some places reaching as high as 10 feet. The cost of repairs to housing, belongings and vehicles has crippled many households, many of which did not possess adequate insurance.
My grandparents, both of whom are over 80 years old, initially refused to leave their home, because they had never been forced out before by a flood and didn’t see why this one would be any different. They anticipated wearing boots for a few days and using their boat to navigate their way to the corner store for food. What would unfold was something they never expected to see in their lifetimes.
The water level inside their house rose to three feet the first day, then to nearly five feet the next day, forcing them to abandon the first floor of their home and stay upstairs. They would eventually evacuate by boat.
During my stay both labor and building supplies were in short supply. The first thing that many Thais did was replace their wood floors and repaint their walls. Both paint and flooring were in short supply and furniture stores were full of customers looking to replace their waterlogged furniture. The Thai government also set up a furniture expo at a nearby convention center to facilitate the purchase of new furniture and make the process as easy as possible for flood victims.
The economic impact on both regional and global markets was unprecedented. Hundreds of industrial factories were shutdown by the flooding, which breached the flood walls hastily put in place by the Thai government. These factories produced a large number of products that were important to the regional and global supply chain. Many vital car component parts for Honda and Toyota are produced in Thailand and the closure of these plants halted world-wide production of several models. Though the two companies have promised not to close their factories due to the flood, which many blame on the government’s lack of preparation, they have told their shareholders that they will move to diversify their supply chain to avoid similar situations in the future.
The closure with arguably the largest effect on global price levels is the shutdown of high-tech factories that produce computer hard disk drives. Thailand is the second largest producer of hard disks in the world and the flooding has caused a shortage of disk drives, which has resulted in a spike in the prices of both disk drives as well as computer systems. Companies like Western Digital, the largest producer of hard disks in the world, had their production cut 75% because of the flooding in Thailand, according to the market research firm IDC. Although some disk drive plants have started back up in Thailand, industry experts expect the stoppage to have an impact through the rest of the year as the market continues to adjust.
For many of the rural poor the flooding was an economic tragedy. Many saw their farms inundated by floodwater, destroying crops and severely lowering the quality of the soil. The United Nations estimates that nearly half of Thailand’s agriculture output was affected by the flooding that swept through the country’s central plain. The flooding has left many farmers and rural communities in a state of economic crisis, as the destruction of their crop means that there will be no income for many families this year. These families will be looking to the already troubled government for both answers and support.
To facilitate the evacuation and to prevent citizens from being pressured to return to unsafe areas, the government announced an entire week of national holidays at the height of the flooding. This move was an attempt to keep the streets of Bangkok relatively empty so that emergency crews could operate unhindered. Most in my extended family decided to take an additional week off, after the holiday week, to get their homes in order. It was not until early December that Bangkok began to return to normal, though parts of the city remained submerged.
Authorities were initially worried about an outbreak of disease associated with stagnant water, however no such outbreaks occurred. Most who visited the hospitals were there for infected cuts or physical injuries. My grandparents were wary of the medical danger that floodwater poses, and like many Thais they wore thigh-high boots and surgical masks to avoid contact with the floodwater.
Politically, the flood has had an enormous effect. Prime MinisterYingluck Shinawatra, who was inaugurated just five months ago, has been under fire for her handling of the flooding. The system of canals and waterways that wind through Bangkok allows water to be diverted in times of flooding. But where that water was diverted is controversial. Many Bangkok residents want to know why their neighborhoods were sacrificed in order to save another area from flooding. There are widespread rumors among Thais that the flood control operation was corrupt and that wealthy residents paid to have their homes saved, at the expense of poorer neighborhoods.
Prior to the flooding there was already a deep and sometimes violent divide between the Thai people. The division primarily centered on the spreading of wealth and influence. Many Thais believe the government is controlled by the aristocracy and that it always supports the monarchy and big business, which are centered in Bangkok. While Bangkok and its residents have prospered greatly over the past decades, rural Thais, who make up 65% of the population, feel they have been disenfranchised too long. That led them to elect the current government, which runs on a populist platform.
This becomes very important, because although the next election remains years away all Thais will be watching how the government handles this situation. The current administration has done a deplorable job, ignoring the plight of the rural population and focusing instead on protecting Bangkok, an effort that failed miserably as the floodwater engulfed much of the city within hours. There has also been no sense of accountability and no long-term solution to prevent future flooding. The lack of planning has all Thais concerned, as the monsoon season, which begins in April, looms on the horizon.
As the recovery from the flood continues, the economy is showing signs of life. Government and consumer spending in the wake of the floods is expected to expand Thailand’s economy in 2012. Even with the flooding, Thailand’s economy grew an estimated 2% in 2011, and a senior government economist expects the economy to grow between 5-7% in 2012. The Thai people have always thought of themselves as a very strong-willed people, and their economic and physical rebuilding seems to hold that statement true.
Sean Bahar is a student at Whittier College in Whittier, California.