23/11/2011 – Every year on the night of the first full moon in November, the people of Thailand give thanks to the spirits of the rivers and lakes for the bountiful rains which promise a good harvest. Fashioning lotus shaped receptacles from banana leaves and layers of banana trunks, decorated with flowers, joss sticks and candles they come to the banks of rivers and lakes to place their offerings onto the waters and see them float away.
But this year there is little reason to give thanks to the spirits as a huge deluge of muddy water has engulfed the homes of millions of people, flooding hundreds of factories, shops and businesses. For the past two months the people of Thailand have been battling one of the worst floods in modern Thai history brought about by heavy monsoon rains and massive storms blowing in from the South China seas.
A vast lake covering some 22 provinces of central Thailand, even visible from satellites, has already flooded the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. Around it lies Thailand’s main rice producing area and major car and electronic factories which helped make Thailand the economic centre in the Southeast Asia. Even the UNESCO World Heritage site was not spared with ancient temples and ruins flooded with only the heads of Buddha statues sticking out of the flood waters, their enigmatic smile seemingly mocking the peoples struggle against the forces of natures. The floods have already taken the lives of some 560 people with hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes.
The capital Bangkok now stands in the way of this vast lake of flood water flowing south towards the sea. Thousands of volunteers, government officials and soldiers are desperately trying to protect the capital but to little avail as one suburb after another has been inundated.
Last week I joined the Thai Red Cross (TRC) with ECHO colleagues and members of the EU delegation on a mission to provide food and water to about a thousand people cut-off by the floods just north of Bangkok’s old airport Don Muang, just ten kilometres from the city centres glitzy shopping malls and office towers. On 21 October ECHO decided to commit some €2 million for humanitarian assistance to those affected by the floods, €1.5 million being channelled through the IFRC to the TRC. The remaining €0.5 million will be used by Save the Children to provide assistance to the displaced, including migrant workers who live in flooded industrial estates. This is part of a regional funding decision of €10 million for 5 countries in Southeast Asia affected by floods and storms in September this year.
For more than an hour we slowly made our way by small boats though narrow alleys, between houses and small apartment buildings. Streets usually bustling with people, traders and cars were eerily quiet. The smelly brown deluge, polluted with sewage and garbage, has flooded the ground floor of the buildings, mostly boarded up, their entrances blocked with thousands of sandbags which turned out to be ineffective.
Here and there we saw people looking out from their second floor windows waving and smiling at us. Many told us that they did not want to leave their homes for fear of looters which have reportedly been roaming the area. They had stocked up on water and food. Their only problem was the lack of electricity which made it impossible for them to recharge their mobile phones, their only means of contact with the outside world.
Finally we arrived at a complex of cheap apartment blocks which stood on some remaining dry land. Hundreds of day labourers, hawkers and domestic workers had fled here from the floods and had appealed for help. Having waited for us for hours in the scorching sun and humidity they told us how they had fled their homes when the floods came, grabbing what they could. They had been taken in by friends and neighbours but after two weeks they had run out of food, they had no money, shops had run out of stocks, ATMs did not work and there was little clean drinking water.
With little fuss they queued up and volunteers proceeded to distribute the TRC relief items of rice, tinned food and bottled water. Their stoicism in the face of this crisis was astonishing, lots of smiles and thanks, no pushing and shoving. These are the people that work behind the façade of modern Thailand, cleaning, trading, working for low wages with little to call their own, and are the worst affected by the floods. Yet despite their hardship they were all smiles, waving, laughing.
Millions of poor Thais continue to struggle against the floods and they know that the floods will have to be followed by a massive clean-up. Many factories will not be fully operational again before early next year, if at all, and their workers fear redundancies.
So many Thais did participate in this year’s Loi Krathong: It also symbolises the hope for redemption and a fresh start.
By Mathias Eick
ECHO Regional Information Officer based in Bangkok