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Mother Nature, Manmade Changes Fuel Flooding Across Asia

October 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The worst floods in half a century are devastating Thailand's central plains while floodwaters are headed toward densely populated Bangkok. Judy Woodruff discusses the latest developments in the Asian floods with Kamal Kishore, a United Nations crisis prevention and recovery official, and Catharin Dalpino of Simmons College.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all of this, we turn to Kamal Kishore, a United Nations official who is involved in crisis prevention and recovery. He has had a career in disaster preparedness in Asia. And Catharin Dalpino, a professor of international relations at Simmons College, she served in the State Department during the Clinton administration.

We thank you both for being with us.

Let me start with you, Kamal Kishore. We see the death toll is almost 300 since the end of July. No question this is much more serious, I think, than people realized.

KAMAL KISHORE, United Nations Development Program: Yes, there is no doubt about that.

The rainfall, indeed, has been exceptional. If you look at north Thailand, northeastern Thailand, central Thailand, they have received up to 50 percent more than they expect every — in July and August, in September. All of this has been aided by tropical storms in the end of July, end of September.

So rainfall has really persisted in these areas. Some parts, especially northern Thailand, received up to twice in a day, some areas, received rainfall that they expect twice as much in a whole month, so exceptionally high rainfall conditions in the months of July, August and September.

However, one has to say that these kinds of exceptional rainfall events are to be expected every few decades. These are not the only things, these are not the only phenomenon that are contributing to flooding. Flooding is caused by a host of other factors.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s what I wanted to — if I could just say, that is what I wanted to ask you about. It’s bad, but they are accustomed to having these monsoons and to having typhoons. What’s different about this year?

KAMAL KISHORE: I think one, of course, the rainfall is exceptionally high.

The other thing is that, you know, a lot of the development patterns pursued over decades are actually now precipitating into this disaster. If you look at areas around Bangkok, there used to be a lot of marshlands, catchment which will hold water in excess rainfall conditions, and then drain gradually. All of those marshlands, as the land crisis grew and the economic value of that land got enhanced, have been built upon.

So you don’t have that facility. Likewise, with the natural drainage patterns, natural, as well as manmade drainage patterns, the system of canals, it has been severely disrupted over the last several decades, and now, when the exceptional rainfall occurs, the effect is exacerbated many times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Catharin Dalpino…

KAMAL KISHORE: Then, of course, there…

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m just going to interrupt one second and bring Catharin Dalpino in.

So just how much of this is manmade, and how much of it is Mother Nature overwhelming what people can deal with?

CATHARIN DALPINO, Simmons College: Well, for the past several years, there have been changes on the Mekong River, some starting in China with dams that they built through Laos and on down.

And Thailand has become very recently sensitive to this, understanding that beyond their own national borders there are things that are happening. The Stimson Center here in Washington has done some wonderful work on that.

And, recently, Thailand asked Laos to suspend work on a dam that was being built by Thai companies because it feared the environmental impact. So there is some awareness across the board that there are things happening in terms of changing infrastructure in the region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you are talking about a region-wide set of issues, rather than just something within each country, within Thailand?

CATHARIN DALPINO: Well, also in Thailand, the past couple of decades, there was severe logging. And in 1988, there were historic floods in southern Thailand. And because of that, they now have a logging ban in the country. But they do log now, the other countries, Cambodian, Myanmar, and Laos as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kamal Kishore, how would you answer that question? How much of this is nature overwhelming what people are accustomed to and how much is manmade?

KAMAL KISHORE: I think it’s about 50/50. I would say that.

There is little we can do about rainfall, but we really have to look at — look at how we develop our cities, how our regional planning takes place. We have to assess these risks over the long term, not just look at year-to-year, but over decades, sometimes even more than that.

So these risks are well-known. And there are methods to assess these risks and take these into account while we build roads that block drainage patterns, while we turn marshlands into developed areas for industrialized states. So it’s really both. And really it has — there is value in taking a regional approach to it as well.

You know, it’s not just — river basins are not confined to countries. They are regional. So really there has to be a regional approach as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Catharin…

KAMAL KISHORE: But let me comment at this point and say just one thing, that one has to recognize how well the Thai departments are doing on saving lives.

If a similar flood had occurred five or six or seven years ago, the loss of lives would be much higher. So they have done a very good job of saving lives, but they need to begin to work towards saving livelihoods over the longer run.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let me ask you about that, Catharin Dalpino, because we read that the government had made huge investments in flood systems, and yet there has been a lot of political upheaval, division in this country for the last few years. Brand-new government, how are they doing at dealing with this?

CATHARIN DALPINO: Well, this is really a test for the new prime minister, for Prime Minister Yingluck, the kind of test that the Bush administration had with Hurricane Katrina, that the Japanese government had with the tsunami and the earthquake.

And every government on this planet, with the possible exception of one or two, now operates under performance legitimacy. How well do they do in these kinds of natural disasters? Certainly, in the past five years, Thailand has been very divided politically. It’s interesting in the past couple of days to see the bipartisan spirit or the multi-partisan spirit.

Yesterday, former Prime Minister Abhisit made a call upon Prime Minister Yingluck. He of course was her rival and he was the one that she turned out in the election. And that was a very, very important symbol.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the political upheaval, unsettled political situation over the last years? Has that contributed to Thailand’s ability to prepare for something like this?

CATHARIN DALPINO: I’m not sure that that’s really the case, that — I think that they have had warning of this for about four months.

Certainly, it started during the elections. And, as your piece said, Yingluck has only been in power for a couple of months. It’s interesting in Bangkok that there is a political divide, not necessarily sharply. The governor of Bangkok is a Democrat. And that’s — so it’s a bipartisan sort of effort to save Bangkok.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Internally.

Let me come back to you, Kamal Kishore.

What decisions need to be made in the coming days to determine whether this gets much worse or whether they get it under control?

KAMAL KISHORE: Well, I think, first, the whole climate weather forecasting system needs to be integrated into decision-making.

Second thing is, obviously, for the coming days and weeks, the emphasis has to be on life, lifesaving activities, not so much on preventing damages. It’s too late for that kind of work. But it is time to really imbibe lessons for the future, not just in Thailand, but other countries that are exposed to these kinds of extreme events every few decades.

All the progress that was made — or not all — a lot of the progress that was made in developing economic activities without taking into account these risks has been wiped out just in a few weeks. So, I mean, is it really worth it? We really need to make sure going forward that all the new development that occurs in risk-prone areas takes that into account and mitigates those risks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kamal Kishore, Catharin Dalpino, we thank you both.

CATHARIN DALPINO: Thank you.