The Waiting Game (Part 2): Flooded communities struggle with insufficient aid

This is Part 2 in a series telling the stories of the Ban Beung E Tao and Ban Tha Kae communities that have been affected by flooding in Isaan this year. This piece includes a history of four severe floods and the communities’ response to this year’s flooding. Donations have come in from private organizations and companies, yet many needs remain unaddressed.

Read “Part 1: Rising waters to submerge Chi River Basin communities”

Guest contributor Amy Bell reports from Nam Phong District in Khon Kaen Province.

During the first two weeks of flooding, children spent most of their time swimming and playing in the water by this entrance. A “no swimming” sign now stands beside the village gate. The currents have picked up speed, making walking through the community a treacherous journey. One woman who fell had to be sent to the hospital. As the waters rise, piling into boats a few at a time has become the only way to get home.

The sides of the main road are filled with parked vehicles and makeshift tents. Despite frequent donations and the efforts of a few volunteer health care workers, it’s simply not enough. Most donations are bottled water, and the food donations do not cover every meal for households. Despite flood warnings, past experience, and donations, the effects of this flood are devastating to the 400 people living in the Ban Beung E Tao and Ban Tha Kae communities in Khon Kaen’s Nam Phong District.

30 October. Community leaders of Ban Beung E Tao and Ban Tao Kae put up a “no swimming” sign after one villager fell in the water and was sent to the hospital. The current’s speed has increased as waters rise.

A history of floods

Before this year, older community members of Ban Beung E Tao and Ban Tao Kae had lived through four severe floods.

The first flood came in 1978 when the water gates at the Ubon Ratana Dam were opened by order of the Royal Irrigation Department (RID).

“We were very overwhelmed because we have never had a flood like that before,” remembers Maneerat Kamcha, adding that community members received no warning or aid. Officials at the dam just told them to move somewhere else. It took three months for the water levels to recede.

The second flood came in 1980. Like the first, there was no warning system and no aid given to the victims. The same happened for the third flood in 2002.

The 2011 flood was the first time that the community received a warning from the RID. Villagers had time to move their belongings to the second floor, harvest their flowers and vegetables early, and move their cows and chickens to higher ground. That year, affected villages received help: governmental and private donations of food and water and volunteers helped rebuild their homes.

Each household received a compensation of 5,000 baht to help rebuild their houses. But the agricultural damage was estimated to cost four times the amount of rebuilding their houses, said Maneerat. The 5,000 baht did not cover the costs that these villagers faced.

Paitoon Bootjan, the community leader of Ban Tha Kae, was asked if higher compensation, flood-proof infrastructure, or more volunteers would have been most helpful. Paitoon says, “I don’t feel like I should have to choose. I want all of those things. I want help from the government. I want floodwalls to protect us, higher compensation, and closer flood monitoring.”

After the 2011 floods, village leaders of Ban Beung E Tao and Ban Tha Kae discussed with neighboring communities how to go about getting more compensation for all flooding events. But discussions got nowhere, and hope for more aid, Paitoon says, “seems impossible.”

The fifth flood

Suralai Kachenchart, a resident of Ban Beung E Tao said her concerns started on October 11th. “I had a migraine that day. The dam released the water in the morning, and it reached us at night, so I couldn’t sleep.” Flood water reached the villages on October 13, yet flooding was not officially announced until October 17.

Suralai moved to Ban Beung E Tao after the 2011 flood. “I haven’t lived here for long but other elder villagers have told me to stay calm because they have been through several floods already,” she says. Her house was one of the first to be flooded on the first day the water hit the village.

Other villagers are used to making preparations for flooding.

“In 2011, I was really scared,” says Sawad Ritthithit in Ban Tha Kae.

“The first time I saw the water in my home I tried removing it with a bucket and throwing it out the window. Now it is too much. But this time I am aware of the possible damage.” Sawad went through the rebuilding process after the 2011 flood, so she is familiar with what’s to come.

25 October. “[The Department of Irrigation] warned us to be prepared and move our things up. But I did not know that they meant this high,” says Sawad Ritthithit, a resident of Ban Tha Kae.

Like in 2011, villagers were able to harvest some vegetables and flowers before their fields were flooded, Sawad says. “We picked the produce even though they were still small and not ripe yet. They can still sell for half of their normal price. Something is better than nothing.”

Several vendors have set up a market alongside the tents that are just outside of the flooded village gates, and most of the community members get their food here. Some tents have been set up along the road for villagers with single-story houses and villagers with disabilities so that they have a dry place to sleep.

This make-shift community is where donations are dropped off and distributed to villagers. Finding clean drinking water and cooking enough food for the entire family is a challenge that many of these villagers face.

The donations primarily come from private organizations and companies, such as the Red Cross and cosmetic companies, says Paitoon. Usually, there is one bag given to each household per day, but the contents do not always cover people’s everyday needs, comments Paitoon.

25 October. Ban Beung E Tao and Ban Tha Kae have received donations from private organizations, such as the Red Cross. One bag of food is given to each household per day.

There is also an immediate need for medicine. Medical donations have not been sufficient, and unattended open wounds pose risk of infection, said Maneerat. Outside health practitioners only come every two to three days.

Private aid has made up the majority of the assistance, as government aid has taken longer to reach Ban Beung E Tao and Ban Tha Kae than other communities in the area.

“I understand why it takes the government time to respond,” remarks Paitoon. “They have many more villages to take care of. The government’s first response was on the day the flood warning was announced, five days after the initial flooding.”

Government response has been limited to boats and a promised compensation. The Ministry of Agriculture has promised people 1,250 baht per rai of farmland owned to rebuild their fields, Paitoon said.

“But most villagers will use the money to buy food,” he says. “They can’t farm. They must survive first. After that, they can start farming again.”

Heavy rainfall plays a part in causing floods. But the very dam that was built to prevent flooding also causes it. The dam has been both a blessing and a curse. Its reservoir feeds the irrigation canals that allows more than one rice crop a year.

So when the dam releases the water that floods his village, Paitoon overlooks the government’s role. “We cannot live without the dam,” he says. “It creates more agricultural and economic opportunities. We can only blame nature.”

Sawad has also accepted the watery fate of her community. “The dam has several gates and everything will be okay if they keep releasing,” she says. “I know it will be hard and difficult to get through, but I have to accept it.”

A community flooding is a crisis, but a common one that seems more burdensome than dangerous. People will get by, Paitoon believes. No one will starve. No one will die.

But it’s frustrating and depressing.

“Apart from supplies,” he says, “I only want encouragement and someone to cheer us up.”

Amy Bell studies Economics and Public Health at Occidental College. She is currently studying Public Health in Khon Kaen this semester.