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“We need a better development plan” East Asia's urban dwellers speak out on living with floods

February 13, 2012

  • Floods are occurring more frequently, as cities expand rapidly
  • Residents are resilient – but damages and losses are heavy
  • Better development plans are needed to manage floods

Washington DC, February 13, 2012 — For many people living in East Asia, floods are a fact of life.

“We just accept it because we know this area is always flooded,” says Ilah, a resident of Kampung Melayu, Jakarta. “We stay in our houses and live our lives as usual. But for floods that reach two meters, we usually store some extra food such as instant noodles and eggs.”

Lim Chanmealea, who lives in Toul Sangke Village, Phnom Penh, says in 2009, she experienced floods which took two months to recede. Her own house was flooded up to her waist. Chanmealea spent over $5,000 to fill the land to raise it by 1.5 meters.

Lives affected: speaking out on living with floods

Taking matters into their own hands to protect themselves—laying out sandbags, filling land to raise the ground, moving furniture and working pumps—residents of flood-prone areas are a testimony to resilience

Floods, the most frequent among all natural disasters, are on the increase worldwide. The fast-growing cities of East Asia are particularly vulnerable, with risks on the rise from rapid urbanization, population growth and climate change, says a new World Bank report “Cities and Flooding: A Guide to Integrated Urban Flood Risk Management for the 21st Century.”

Saranyathorn Chaoman, or Ped, who works for the Customs Department in Bangkok, is a recent victim of the large-scale floods which struck Thailand in 2011. She lives with her husband and two children near the Saimai district, one of the first areas to be affected. The water rose to more than three feet in her house, forcing her to evacuate to a hotel.

“We spent a lot of money to protect our house, building barriers and blocking all drains, but the floods were beyond our expectations,” says Ped. She had to pay $10 for a short boat ride back to check on her house, which would have cost her 70 cents on a motorbike during normal times. After the floods, the cost of everything went up.

In Jakarta, bulging with 250,000 new residents every year, rapid expansion of the city has added to the cause of floods.

Ilah has lived in the same neighborhood for 40 years. “Floods started to get worse after 1975. Since then, we have been hit on a monthly basis,” she says. “The biggest flood was in 2007. I had to climb to the top of a school building like a monkey while carrying my one year old baby. From there, I evacuated by rubber boat.”

It is a familiar story heard across the region.

In Phnom Penh, “The fast growth of buildings blocked the flow of rain water. At the same time there was no proper drainage system in place,” observes Chanmealea.

During the floods in 2009, “All of us, including my children, walked through dirty flood water. Sewage had overflowed. Near my village, there were five people from one family that died from electrical shock. People got scabies rash. Bicycles, motorbike, and other things were destroyed,” she said.

Such damages can be devastating. In Vientiane, Lao PDR which was struck by severe flooding in 2007, Bounhom Panyavong, a farmer from Kaeng-yang Village, Hadsaifong District, said, “We had a big loss of income because most of my crops were damaged from the flood and the production of my rice field decreased from 10 bags to 4 bags.”

Pae Vongkhosy, a shop owner in Bor-Oh Village, Hadsaifong District, said, “We had a big loss of income because many of our fish in our fishery died. Our property also got very dirty and we had to move all of our furniture up stairs.”

Across the border in Cambodia, Seang Sor, owner of Krovan Siem Reap restaurant, said, “I lost over 50 percent of my regular guests during the flood.”

Students were affected too. Rector of the University of South-East Asia, Sean Vanna said that last year the floods in Siem Reap were the worst he had ever seen. He was forced to close his university for two weeks, at a loss of $40,000 of income. He blamed the heavy rain, insufficient sewage system, and discharge from the stream which runs through town.

During recent floods in Bangkok, a little girl and her mother offer boat rides to other flood victims to check on their houses, at 200-300 THB (about $6-10) round trip.

Ped, of Bangkok, points out that it’s not just the economic damages that residents suffer. Even after the waters have receded, fatigue and psychological scars remain. Uncertainties over future floods are causing stress. The drains along the footpaths in her neighborhood are still full of sewage, and the street which leads to her house is lower than the main road. Her husband fell ill from infections during the clean up.

“Everyone is worried because the rainy season may come early this year. People are not planting trees, as they were destroyed by the floods, and using cement to cover land where the waters may come,” says Ped. “It’s inconvenient, but we have to be patient, and change our life style,” she adds.

Living in the shadow of floods, some longed to move to safer grounds. “We’re willing to relocate because who in his right mind wants to keep evacuating every time there’s flooding?” said Renee Williams, widow and resident of Barangay Bamban, Los Baños Laguna, the Philippines. “The last time, we evacuated to a school and stayed for three months. It was hard because there were at least 10 families sharing one classroom.” Wati, of Kampung Melayu, Jakarta, said, “If I had the chance, I’d like to move somewhere else.”

Many also had insight, and constructive suggestions to make their lives easier.

In Bangkok, Ped had practical advice. “Before the floods come, read newspapers and watch TV to stay updated. Talk to neighbors to get their views on preparation to help make decisions. After the floods, avoid the news to reduce tension.”

Pae Vongkhosy of Vientiane explains that her area is very close to the Mekong River where the land is very low. “The government should build a river bank to protect against the rising river water.” Bounhom Panyavong, also of Vientiane, agreed. “Support to the flood victims was not enough and should be improved. They had to wait for the flood water to recede naturally without pumps to help and let the water flood their rice fields.”

Sean Vanna of Siem Reap says, “I want to suggest to the provincial authority to build a sewage system which responds to the fast growth of the town and monitor them regularly. I also want to see that the province has a master plan to redirect the water flow from up the hill, through the town, to Tonle Sap Lake to prevent any flooding.”

Lim Chanmealea of Phnom Penh suggested that the government should have a better development plan with proper sewage system in place before allowing new buildings to be built.