BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hat Yai, southern Thailand’s largest city, has assembled an impressive arsenal - from CCTV and online data, to community volunteers – to give residents and businesses early warning of the floods that now threaten some neighbourhoods every year.
A floods working group, made up of the government, local companies, civil society and community leaders, has set up closed-circuit television cameras to monitor canals, and has made real-time information on rainfall and water levels available on a website.
It has also helped local communities map the city’s water flows, produced a handbook on how to combat floods, and established an insurance fund to help those affected.
Hat Yai’s efforts offer an example of how cities can innovate in tackling extreme weather events like storms, which scientists say are already being made worse by climate change.
Hat Yai’s waterways have become obstructed due to urbanisation, new construction and modern farming practices including pesticide and herbicide use – and this is exacerbating seasonal flooding.
An effective flood prevention programme would not only save lives but money too. Severe flooding in 2010, for example, caused damage costing more than 10 billion baht ($320 million).
The low-lying, fast-growing city, near the border with Malaysia, may not be a familiar name to western tourists, but Hat Yai welcomes more than 1 million visitors a year, mainly from Thailand’s Southeast Asian neighbours, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
The city’s economy is based on tourism and agriculture, with most of its income generated by the rubber, timber, palm oil and fishing industries. Protecting the city from floods is important for all these sectors, as well as for inhabitants.
GROWING THREATS TO GROWING CITIES
“Floods are a long-term problem in Hat Yai, but now we’re seeing increasing severity and frequency,” Pruek Pattano, the city’s deputy mayor, told Thomson Reuters Foundation during a recent trip to Bangkok.
“Severe floods used to occur every 12 years. Then it became every 10 years. Since 2010, there have been flood risks and floods in some areas every year,” he added. “We have flood walls, but nowadays it feels like they are being threatened all the time.”
Direkrit Thawakan, the municipality’s director of public works, agrees. His department is responsible for a wide range of flood-related issues, from assessments before, during and after floods, to the provision of emergency warnings and assistance. Direkrit says official projections show the city will see 250 cm of rainfall in 30 years’ time, increasing to 300 cm in 60 years.
“The intensity has also changed. We have fewer rainy days but each day is more intense,” he said. “The existing drainage capacity is struggling.”
Hat Yai’s flood management programme began in earnest when it was chosen in 2009 to be part of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), an initiative led by the Rockefeller Foundation, alongside nine other cities in India, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.
“When the Rockefeller Foundation was founded in 1913, one in 10 people called a city home. Today, one in two people do,” said Ashvin Dayal, Rockefeller’s associate vice president and managing director in Asia, explaining the rationale for the focus on cities.
Around 55 percent of Asia’s population of more than 3.7 billion is expected to be living in cities by 2030, and medium-sized cities like Hat Yai - which are seeing some of the fastest population growth - are among the least prepared to cope with rapid urbanisation and climate change, Dayal added.
ONLINE AND OFFLINE INNOVATION
Hat Yai’s vulnerabilities, disaster history and willingness to tackle urban resilience issues led the foundation to select it for the project, Dayal said.
So far the city, which has received some $500,000 from Rockefeller, seems to be living up to expectations.
Its popular, one-stop-shop website started with real-time CCTV footage of water levels in the canals. It later added information, including rainfall data and satellite imagery, which was previously available in disparate places and not easily accessible. Local radio stations are now using this data to provide early warnings.
“In the past, when there were floods, there were a lot of rumours and misinformation. People didn’t know where to go, and this was a real weakness in terms of flood management,” said Panumas Nontapan, webmaster of hatyaicityclimate.org.
“People would drive to different canals and look at the water levels because that’s the only way they could be sure of what was happening,” he added. These days, CCTV cameras allow anyone to check water levels and make their own assessments without putting themselves in danger.
Hat Yai’s methods of drawing on local knowledge to prepare for floods, producing a handbook, and assigning community leaders to alert people have been adopted by other cities in Thailand. Its work on the polluted U-Tapao river basin has also been expanded to two nearby watersheds.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of working on these projects has been the close links forged between different groups, said Deputy Mayor Pruek.
“There’s usually mistrust between the (NGOs) and the municipalities, but now quite a lot of trust has been built through this process,” he said.
The floods working group is chaired by the Songkhla Chamber of Commerce, instead of the local authorities, as a way of making its actions more credible to the private sector, Pruek noted.
Now, after four years of cooperation, the municipal government plans to strengthen the public consultation process for infrastructure construction and other projects.
“Previously that would not really have happened - or happened as well as it could - because of a lack of trust. Now we’re having more public dialogue,” Pruek added.