After weeks of false alarms, panic-buying and twitter hysteria, it looks as though central Bangkok will in fact be flooded this weekend. Observing the media reaction, one could well be forgiven for assuming that this means that residents should be fleeing a towering tsunami bearing down on the city, laden with a cargo of venomous snakes, poisonous chemicals and escaped crocodiles; in reality, as Bangkok-based journalist and blogger Richard Barrow (who has been doing sterling work on twitter sorting out facts from hysteria) points out, calling the ankle-deep tidal surges currently assaulting parts of the centre of the capital a flood is an insult to those parts of Thailand (including many Bangkok suburbs) where people have lost houses, lives and incomes under two or three metres of water.
Of course, the real danger hasn’t hit yet: that’s the killer combination of the unusually high tides expected over the weekend and the four billion-odd cubic metres of water that needs to drain from the north of the country into the Gulf of Thailand, with Bangkok squarely in the way of both. City flooding is slow and insidious, and the vast network of pumping stations, storage reservoirs and drainage tunnels throughout Bangkok means that a simple contour map isn’t much help in determining flood risk. The government is providing a salutary lesson in how not to communicate during an emergency, so it’s not surprising that people are leaving in droves – no one knows reliably where the flooding will happen and how bad it will be. But even the worst-case scenario is something along the lines of 50 cm in the centre, which is likely to rapidly drain away. The Atlantic, which is doing a phenomenal job of photoreportage on the floods across Thailand, has this photoessay on the flooding in Bangkok: dramatic pictures, but almost all are in the suburbs. No-one wants to have to wade through even ankle-deep sewage, but this scarcely a flood of “Biblical” proportions (yep, I’m looking at you, CNN).
So the city holds its breath as everyone waits for the other shoe to drop. Walls of sandbags and hurriedly-constructed cement barriers protect individual houses and businesses, bottled water and instant noodles have become impossible to find in the shops, but shops and restaurants are open, even if all the talk is about whether you should be hoarding cash in case the ATM network goes down, or how to tell whether a area of water is carrying an electrical current (many of the flood-related deaths have been from electrocution). In the meantime, TV journalists make their reports standing in large puddles outside tourist attractions, carefully neglecting to show that the surrounding areas are bone-dry. The real disaster is happening in the outlying parts of Bangkok, which may experience flooding for four weeks or more, and upcountry where areas such as Ayutthaya may be underwater for months, destroying crops and displacing thousands of people.
On Wednesday, our office announced it would close until the following Monday; I took an impulsive decision to leave that night for Chiang Mai in the north, since there’s a festival there this weekend I’d been planning to see for ages. This decision was either very right or very wrong, depending on your point of view: a friend tried to join me last night but couldn’t get a ticket out of the city, while I’m beginning to worry about getting back to Bangkok on Monday. I’m sitting in Chiang Mai, drinking coffee and feeling awfully like I’ve deserted, while refreshing twitter obsessively to see where the water’s got to now. Stay safe, Bangkok, and see you on the other side.