Monday, March 5, 2012

The Great Wall of Thailand

The king of Thailand doesn’t usually issue stern warnings. Then again, the flood that struck here last year was by no means usual, even by the standards of this flood-prone country: it was by far the costliest natural disaster in Thailand’s history. And so late last month, the king announced that the government should prevent deforestation, which is believed to have aggravated the disaster, and punish any “greedy civil servants” who get in the way.

Might the Thai government finally be taking environmental concerns seriously? Not exactly. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has presented an ambitious plan to build protective walls around the country’s core industrial areas and promote forest-conservation measures. But her projects are mostly about making the right noises to please the palace and the public.

She is acting as if her seven-month government wouldn’t survive a second deluge. Last year’s flood — the result of extraordinarily high rainfall, combined with major deforestation and too few catchment areas — had staggering economic effects. Economic output contracted by almost as much as it did after the 1997 financial crisis.
The government was widely blamed for the losses. It had failed to manage exceptional water levels at the dams up in northern Thailand. And once the flood waters hit Bangkok, the politicians seemed aimless and disorganized.
Not this year. The government has already been keeping water levels behind the dams artificially low in anticipation of the wet season, which starts in May. It has designated large swathes of land as catchment areas. It is also building some 90 miles of flood walls around the six low-lying government-run industrial estates north of Bangkok, the heart of Thailand’s manufacturing sector.
At $157 million, this effort is a steal, if you consider that companies operating in these estates pay three times that amount in taxes annually. The government is desperate to convince Japanese manufacturers of electronics, scooters and cars who are eyeing Indonesia, and its booming middle class, that Thailand still is the place to be. Building these walls is a bold move, and it will score points with the country’s industrial lobby.
But it is something of a desperate measure. The barriers could exacerbate flooding outside the islands they will shield. They do nothing to address the fact that the country’s industrial areas are low-lying and cannot be protected forever. Nor do they help with the most basic question: where is the floodway that would channel surging waters past Bangkok into the Gulf of Thailand? The Chao Phraya River isn’t enough.
Efforts to deal with the underlying causes of flooding are even more inadequate. Two days after the king’s warning last month, the government announced that it would earmark $98 million for a five-year project to rehabilitate forests over 4,300 square miles. This is a piddling amount.
Damrong Pidech, the director general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation was quoted as saying: “We never seriously put forest rehabilitation on the national agenda before.” It’s about time: trees covered 61 percent of Thailand’s land mass in 1945 compared with just 25 percent in 1998. From space, Thailand looks like a brown dustbowl surrounded by a ring of green.
Not that tackling deforestation has become a priority for the government anyway; it’s just that now it’s politically prudent to pretend that it is. If the king says do it — punish officials who fail to protect the forests — then it must be done. But there is little public demand for green policies.
In 2007, Bangkok already ranked 7th on the O.E.C.D.’s list of cities most vulnerable to coastal flooding in terms of population exposure. Since Myanmar’s generals moved their capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, 200 miles inland, Bangkok is now the only capital ranked in the top ten.
Unless the Thai government can formulate and implement a long-term plan for life in the flood plains, it risks making the men in green who run the country next door look like geniuses.
By TOM FELIX JOEHNK Bangkok-based journalist

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