Lessons from the floods
By Damir Sagolj
In the beginning it was business as usual. Children played in the water, women moved around on makeshift rafts and people ignored the rising water from the north of Thailand. There were lots of smiling faces and very few worried ones. Looking from the outside, one could say people were having fun and soon all would be forgotten.
Then, suddenly it was not fun any more. As the murky water rose and moved towards the capital it was obvious the scale of this year’s floods would be something very few expected. The land of smiles turned into the land of worry, then anger.
Pictures of destruction and despair were on every corner, the joy and smiling faces had begun to fade-out. We witnessed catastrophe and damage on a scale that would be difficult to calculate. The floods in Thailand occur every year and they hit the same provinces at about the same time. People know what to expect, and some have even use to it. But, what happened in the past two months left everyone totally shocked.
At the peak of the disaster, a third of the country was under water; a third! From the roads and elevated highways it looked bad but the truth was only revealed once we had a chance to fly over the enormous mass of water with an end nowhere to be seen.
The floods were on two levels – everything outside Bangkok and the water in the capital. As the unimaginable become reality and the floodwater gushed past suburbs towards the city – the stories and our pictures had changed. The smiles and those victory signs people flash all the time (photographers from the Middle East to Asia “love” it so much) disappeared into muddy and toxic water. What remained was a serious struggle to minimize the effect of biggest floods in over half a century in Thailand.
To cover such a story that stays on the front pages for some two months takes more that just photographic skill. The story has weird and sometimes unexpected dynamics that journalists need to predict in order to follow it. Whether papers and web sites publish our images and stories depends not only on what is happening here but also on what is happening elsewhere and, sometimes even more importantly, how repetitive the story has become. It’s maybe sad but it’s true – papers get tired with more of the same. They need new angles, new situations to keep it going.
At some point, as the water was asked no questions on its way to the gulf of Thailand, the huge industrial estates housing thousands of factories were hit. That was the new angle and spectacular images were produced. Honda and Toyota, Canon and Western Digital – they were all going under. Billions of dollars were lost. Frantic efforts to protect the factories with sand bag walls remained just a pathetic attempt to minimize the damage. Soon after it all looked as from post apocalyptic movie – just roofs of vehicles and logos atop of buildings were visible. The rest was just black, dirty unstoppable rising water.
The capital was literary besieged by water. Satellite images and flood maps suggested there is was little chance Bangkok would be spared. The story changed dynamics again and tens of thousands of evacuees had to move further south, away from the unstoppable water. Soldiers and volunteers, students and even monks all joined hands in an effort to stop the water.
For some it was to late and too little, for others it was just enough to survive.
The city’s old airport, now serving mostly domestic flights, was under water offering pictures not ever seen before – from the helicopter it looked as though a kid had forgot his 747 plane toys in a pool of water.
Little boats or more often makeshift rafts became the only way of move around. It all looked like a computer animated video game – but, in fact it was a serious struggle to save what could be saved. And then, unavoidably, big and confusing politics kicked in. Lots of accusation flew as planning did not seem to be very coordinated; there was lots of aid food that had turned rotten, never reaching those in need, lots of sand bags that protected nothing, lots of water gates closed only to be opened or destroyed by local residents shortly after.
The capital, its heart, the major roads and the main airport had to be saved – and that was what happened in the end. If you ask people in suburbs behind a big barrier protecting the city – that was not fair as they remained flooded for a longer time. If you ask Bangkokians in the city center – that was the only way to do it. Society was divided again and accusations were flying over the poor-rich front line that cuts through the country.
Many agreed that, beside the enormous amount of water resulting from the monsoon rains, the catastrophe was partly man-made. Analysts point to serious, strategical mistakes in city planning and to bad flood management. Whatever the reason, we should hope the lesson has been learned because if this happens one more time – it will be difficult, maybe even impossible to heal the wounds and regain confidence.
We ended up with many pictures on newspaper front pages but also with broken bones, some nasty cuts and with equipment damaged – but really a small price compared to those who lost lives, homes and business.