One-woman show isn't enough to tackle floods

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 October, 2011, 12:00am


Thailand is drowning in what is believed to the worst floods in more than half a century. The north and the central plains have been submerged in water, in places up to 2 metres deep, and the Yingluck Shinawatra government is now trying to protect Bangkok.

The natural disaster is turning out to be a crisis of leadership for her. Thai officials are rushing to reinforce barriers and widen canals in Bangkok, but their enthusiasm may come too late. The deluge began in late July, so far killing at least 280 people, swamping factories operated by foreign conglomerates and damaging more than 10 per cent of rice farms.

Just a few days ago, Yingluck was forced to open army camps to house some of the 2.4 million people displaced by the floods. The devastation has led the finance ministry to cut its forecast for economic growth for this year from 4 per cent to 3.7 per cent. Damage costs are estimated at 120billion baht (HK$30 billion).

To Yingluck's credit, she has been seen throughout the country, meeting those affected by the floods and offering them basic commodities. She has worked around the clock, visiting even the most remote regions to show her commitment to relieve the hardship of affected residents. She has proved that her image of 'a leader of the grass roots' isn't based on nothing.

But will this be enough to prove her leadership? Probably not. So far, the government's solution to the crisis is a one-woman show. Yingluck's ministers directly in charge of the disaster have been inactive. There has been no integrated approach, or even a national policy, to deal with such a large-scale disaster.

Yingluck set up a 'war room' only recently to tackle the crisis. Her national address on television, delivered early in the week, was long overdue. But she was unable to answer many important questions. What is the evacuation plan? How soon will Thailand emerge from the crisis? What kind of compensation is the government willing to offer? And what is the recovery plan once the floods recede?

It is hard to imagine that, as a middle-income country, Thailand lacks an effective crisis management plan. At the same time, Yingluck's leadership has been sorely tested and she has failed to achieve a high score.

It is inexcusable for her to claim that her government has just assumed power and she has been overwhelmed by other 'political issues'. At this point, Yingluck will have to find desperate measures to ease the situation. Then, after the floods die down, she will have to find good answers for the furious Thais who were left struggling to cope by themselves.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies