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Bangkok and Beijing: Lessons from Two Floods
Summary:People need to realize that although engineering solutions such as expensive drainage systems, dams and tunnels are important, it still takes more than infrastructure to deal with floods.

By Anchalee Kongrut, a journalist from the Bangkok Post who is on exchange with the Economic Observer

The last thing I expected to face in Beijing was a serious flood.

Born and raised in Bangkok, I have been dealing with floods all my life. My home has been flood annually as it's in a low-lying area, not far from the banks of the Chaophraya River which runs through the city.

Bangkok's geography makes it vulnerable to floods - it's located on a low-lying delta at the confluence of five rivers.

The city government has long been obsessed with flood control. With people often ranking the achievement of government according to its ability to manage the flood waters.

Good Bangkok governors are those who can conquer the floods.

Huge sums of the government funds are spent on pricey flood prevention infrastructure - underground tunnels, dams along the upper reaches of the Chaophraya River, water gates, pumps, not to mention the establishment of a special task forces called the "Fong Nam Unit" (literally water absorbtion unit) that deliver sand bags, fix pumps and clear clogged drains.

But this is the mentality and culture of a people who live with water.

But in my mind, Beijingers come from the high country, they're more like mountain people.

Both residents and officials are not equipped to deal with floods.

So I understand the confused response from people and authorities to last Saturday's deadly floods.

It is unrealistic to imagine that any city will not be flooded when it's hit by a continuous 16-hour downpour like Beijing was last Saturday.

Like many Beijingers, I too was stranded in the heavy rain last Saturday. On my way home, I saw pools of flood water form in the low-lying areas, mostly at traffic intersections.

My friend whom I just met for the first time that day insisted on dropping me off at the Lama Temple subway station.

While I surveyed the scene of people wading through the knee-high flood waters, it struck me as being nothing more than just another storm and another flood, nothing unusual by the standards of us Bangkokians.

But I was shocked when I read the headlines the next morning, the death toll from the storm, first reported as 10, then lifted to 37 and finally 77, was truly astounding.

In Thailand, as elsewhere, people die during floods, mostly from accidents such as electrocution or simply because they cannot swim or have disabilities that prevent them from escaping the flood waters.
But in Beijing, there were reports of a 34 year-old man who drowned, he was trapped in his car in rising flood water at a flooded intersection.

People Helping People

While Beijing authorities have already pledged to upgrade the city's drainage system, they also need to realise that one over-looked tool in flood rescue and prevention is to empower civil society to help themselves.

In Bangkok's epic floods last year, all the expensive infrastructure that the government had put in place failed to cope with the massive flood waters.  

The best flood disaster rescue operation in Bangkok last year turned out to be its own people - civil society and volunteers who helped each other and also helped the government

to assist people too. We saw celebrities delivering food on jet skis. Office workers volunteered to help sandbag the hospital near the river. Technology played a vital role in empowering people to help themselves. Flood victims and volunteers relied on the internet's social network like Facebook, Twitter and SMS to ask for or provide help in areas the authority cannot provide help. Graphic designers from advertisement created graphics explaining the direction in which the flood waters were moving.

Likewise, for Beijing, it's vital to make use of on-line networks and communication tools such as Sina Weibo and other microblogs, or SMS to inform the public about natural disasters, vulnerable spots and how they can give help and get help.

On this score, I give two thumbs up to the Beijingers who did their best to deal with this unexpected emergency, the examples of people helping strangers in trouble were really encouraging. Such heart-warming news remind me about last year's flood in Bangkok and in Tsunami in 2006 when people from all walk of life came out to help.

People need to realize that although engineering solutions such as expensive drainage systems, dams and tunnels are important, it still takes more than infrastructure to deal with floods.

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