KHON KAEN – From sunup until sundown Phongsak Chonchee rides a boat across an unfamiliar landscape. As a subdistrict officer in Khon Kaen’s flooded Chonnabot district, Mr. Phongsak and his assistant have taken responsibility for the 315 families stranded in the middle of the swollen Nong Kong Kaew Lake. Since September 27, he’s been ferrying food, aid-workers and schoolchildren back and forth, counting down the days until the floodwaters recede and Mai Si Wilai village’s roads re-emerge.
Though Bangkok is still waiting for the floodwaters to crest, the worst has come and gone in the Northeast. In Khon Kaen, Mr. Phongsak is just a small piece of the numerous flood relief programs underway throughout the province. Government offices, temples, schools, universities, hospitals, and innumerable private citizens have stepped in to offer assistance to the nearly 45,000 displaced people in Khon Kaen.
In Phra Lap municipality, on the outskirts of Khon Kaen city, over 700 displaced residents of Phra Kheu village are now calling the shoulder of a provincial highway home. And so far, they say, the relief efforts have been quite helpful.
“Since the disaster started, many people have been trying to help and that’s the best we can hope for,” village headman Sadet Namueangjan said from a folding chair beneath one of a few dozen tents lining the roadside. “We are luckier than others because we stay on the highway and people who pass by see us and bring us food.”
In addition to the informal support from generous motorists, Phra Kheu has benefited from numerous donations from local temples, daily food deliveries from the municipality, and regular visits from doctors and nurses from Khon Kaen city hospitals. These medical teams perform routine check-ups, distribute medicine, and provide massages free of charge.
“The province asked us to do this on our budget and told us they would pay us back later, but they didn’t say when or how much,” Dr. Rujiralak Phrommueang, the head of Khon Kaen Hospital’s Social Medicine Department said. “But [our doctors] come back happy from these services so we’re pleased to help the people who are facing such problems.”
Early on in their relocation, Mr. Sadet, Phra Kheu’s village leader, began a letter-writing campaign in the hopes of receiving as much assistance as possible. One such letter went to the President of Khon Kaen University (KKU) and in less than a week 250 food boxes had appeared at the village tents, courtesy of KKU.
A representative from the Office of the President of KKU said that these food boxes represent just a fraction of the aid they have been providing throughout the region. Students from KKU’s engineering, agriculture, and medical faculties have volunteered to assist in rebuilding damaged farming equipment, to advise villagers about paddy reclamation, and to perform medical checkups. A University-wide donation campaign has generated close to 1 million baht in donations.
Behind the scenes of these relief efforts, the Khon Kaen office of the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation has been seeing that relief goes to the right places. As they collect information on flood-affected areas in the province, they guide interest groups in deciding where to offer services.
Though the department is satisfied with short-term aid efforts thus far, its leaders also recognize the difficulties facing their operations in the long run.
“For one thing, each provincial office [of the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation] is allocated 50 million baht and that isn’t fair,” said Suphornrat Saengmasi, the head of the department. “Khon Kaen, for example, has many districts and a much larger population than many other provinces.” After petitioning the main office in Bangkok, the Khon Kaen branch was granted an extra 50 million baht this year and has spent over 80 million baht to date.
“I think we still lack many things,” she explained. “We need better boats and we’re lacking toilets. It would have been better if Bangkok had provided us with these flooding supplies before the floods occurred. That’s why we call this department ‘prevention’.”
Indeed, Dr. Rujiralak from Khon Kaen Hospital echoed Ms. Suphornrat’s concerns, indicating the health risks that stem from a lack of necessary supplies. “Many of the hospital workers are concerned that there aren’t nearly enough public toilets. The villagers are probably relieving themselves anywhere they want and that will spread diseases.” Hospital volunteers are currently conducting water tests in flood-affected areas throughout the province to further analyze this risk.
As aid workers of varying expertise continue to offer their help and their suggestions for the future, most flood-affected villagers in the Northeast seem focused on one goal.
“The main problem is that we need finances to replant our rice. We want the government to help us rebuild our careers,” Chonnabot’s Samrit Saiwanwang said. “Forget about this harvest season. We need to look ahead to the next.” The floods have destroyed close to 350,000 rai of land in Khon Kaen province alone.
Floodwaters in the Northeast are expected to recede significantly in late November.