BANGKOK (AP) — As floodwaters persisted in areas of northern and central Thailand and have started to hit low-lying areas in the capital, officials were looking warily ahead Tuesday to developing storms later this month, but were optimistic the devastation of a decade ago would not be repeated.
The Royal Irrigation Department was forced this week to start releasing water from the Pasak Jolasid Dam after it reached capacity, dumping more water into a major artery that flows into the Chao Phraya River, which snakes through Bangkok before it reaches the sea.
At the moment, experts say there doesn’t seem to be any danger of the widespread flooding that hit Bangkok in 2011, though the additional water and higher tides at the end of the week will continue to affect particularly prone riverside areas.
“What we expect is that if they don’t have any more heavy rain in the coming week, we should be safe,” said Nattapon Nattasomboon, director general of Thailand’s Meteorological Department.
Eight people have died and one is missing so far in the flooding triggered by Tropical Storm Dianmu combined with seasonal monsoon rains at the end of last month. Nearly 287,000 homes have been hit by floods in 32 of the country's 77 provinces. In recent days, the situation has eased in 14 of those provinces, according to the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation.
Meteorologists are keeping a close eye on two developing storms, one that’s currently expected to hit northern Vietnam over the weekend and another that appears to be building around the Philippines but whose direction is not yet known, Nattapon said.
“This year the storms are quite late,” he said. “And there’s still more storms coming, but ... with the incoming storm we don’t expect much of the heavy rain here.”
In 2011, Thailand was hit with five heavy storms, which combined with monsoon rains for a lengthy, slow-moving flood that caused billions of dollars in damage and took hundreds of lives.
At the time, the first floor of Sumet Thongphun’s home in Nonthaburi, just outside Bangkok, sat under 80 centimeters (2 ½ feet) of water for two months, forcing him and his pregnant wife to move into a friend’s condominium. He’s about 8 kilometers (5 miles) away from the Chao Phraya River, but some neighbors already started sandbagging their homes last week just in case there is a repeat.
“This obviously reflects their concerns,” he said.
The 39-year-old office worker has been closing watching the weather, but said that with fewer storms this year and lower levels in reservoirs compared to 2011, he’s not worried at the moment.
He said the government could do a better job communicating. When people see pictures of widespread flooding in the provinces near Bangkok, it causes panic.
“Those communities near the river and out of the levee are easily flooded even during the seawater’s high tide,” he said.
Following the 2011 flooding, the government faced criticism for its emergency management, with regional officials making decisions for their own areas that had adverse effects downstream, among other things.
Since then, however, coordination between departments has improved, said Pakorn Apaphant, executive director of the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency in Thailand.
“Now, agencies that are working in water-related management are sharing information, and have had committees working together for quite a long time," he said. "We share information, we share people, we attack the problem together.”
Pakorn’s agency provides satellite imagery to others, for example, which helps target where help is needed most and also to confirm reports of damage or loss for compensation.
This year’s flooding has primarily affected agricultural areas, unlike in 2011 when industrial estates and logistics hubs, among other sectors, were badly hit. So far, the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce’s Centre for Economic and Business Forecasting estimates the initial damage at around 15 billion baht ($450 million), affecting GDP growth by 0.1-0.2%.
Since 2011, Thailand has also built more levees and water retention areas to protect from floods, so is better prepared even if more rains come, Pakorn said.
Still, with rising global temperatures causing more violent storms, there is a need for vigilance and planning, he said.
“I believe that we will get worse effects from climate change in this area,” he said. “The problem is stronger, the problem is bigger, but I think the management is also better so I think we can handle it."