By Ross Tomlinson, Catholic Relief Services
Thailand is no stranger to calamity. In most years there is some level of flooding. But they are normally smaller and localized, more manageable.
This year the floods are enormous. They cover the lowland provinces, which is the agricultural basket of Thailand. Responders have looked on in astonishment as the slow moving mass of water bore down on Bangkok to head to the sea.
The heavy rains were coupled with age-old water management issues revolving around the question: How much water should farmers (and politicians) keep back for the crops? Is this all the rain we will have?
As nature and water policy collided, storm waters thundered through the highlands and the dams and rice paddy fields filled to dangerous levels.
Most of the province of Nakhon Sawan has been under water for two months, as has Suphanburi, Chai Nat and Uthai Thani. Only the highest points, a few metres higher, stayed dry. The government built over 1,700 flood shelters, but many people preferred to stay at home, to live on the roof, to stay in emergency tree houses.
This week I had the privilege to witness the ongoing activities of Caritas Thailand and their diocesan partners supporting flood affected families in northern Thailand. It is an experience I will not forget.
CRS (Catholic Relief Services) is a Caritas member based in the US) and other Caritas members are supporting aid distributions to thousands of rural families. A distribution I saw gave kits with food and other items to 3,200 families from seven villages to the east of Nakhon Sawan. They are farmers, mainly, though there are some labourers and tradesmen among them. The beneficiaries have been identified by local priests and brought to the attention of Caritas Thailand by Bishop Pibul Visitnondachai as unassisted communities.
Working through dioceses, Catholic volunteers distribute vouchers to the families before the distribution. There are many organizations helping: The government donated food and other items. Caritas supplemented the food. Then volunteers loaded the trucks in Bangkok. The distribution is at a Buddhist temple. When has such a diverse group operated in unison?
The distribution itself is very ceremonial. As we enter the temple a large open plan building with high pillars and mats on the floor, there are maybe 2000 people sitting patiently and neatly, cross-legged. They are being entertained by Fr Rangsiphon Plienphan, Director of the Diocese’s Social Commission, through a microphone, as an elderly, wizened, saffron-clad monk observes in the background.
Simultaneously, 50 volunteers in pink vests (from the Lions Club of Phrae, a region in the distant, mountainous northeast of Thailand) are unloading the food packages into tidy piles. The volunteers are a mixed bunch of civic workers and young people, even a punk, all compelled to help their countrymen.
A woman explained to me that everything in the bag was useful: rice and noodles, some biscuits, a torch (batteries included), sanitary napkins and sundries – enough for five days, maybe a week.
The distribution is over in minutes, seven villages receive their aid in a flash, and people are smiling and heading home.
While people leave, Caritas staff and nuns conduct surveys to check on the contents of kits and lend a sympathetic ear to people’s stories. At the riverbank, people jumped into boats and head off to houses with floodwaters up to the eaves. I am confused as to where they would actually stay. But no one was deterred, everyone was happy and smiling.
I suppose that now the waters are subsiding and some help had come, everyone is generally relieved to be through the worst. For the moment, they have the means to live.
Tomorrow and for tomorrows they will deal with the complex and tiring process of putting their lives back together. High priorities in Nakhon Sawan are now to get more food to live; to find work for migrant labourers (both non-Thai and Thai migrant labourers are in a precarious situation as there is now limited work); and to get seeds for fields. Farmers emphasized the need for planting again, as soon as the fields are clear, to get a rice harvest in three months. Mr. Somsak of the Nakhon Sawan diocese, with typical Thai optimism, says that at least the next harvests should be good given the newly fertile flood soil.
On the way home we took the direct route, through the flood, into north Bangkok. As we went, the water levels gradually rose, to the point where shops were flooded, some shop owners still selling goods in knee-high water, torrents crossing the road. As we drove south, we saw more and more people living in temporary shelters surrounded by their household goods. Communities, kitchens, camps, here a TV, there an area full of tents, every high road crammed with cars parked for safe keeping, the luggage compartment of a national bus converted into a bedroom or cook space.
Then we hit the traffic. Bangkok is notorious for its traffic, but not so much on the roads leaving town. I saw people tired and weary leaving the city for the four days of impromptu holiday – this was a search for relief, a fatalistic acceptance of what may come, it was not panic.
Yes, Thailand is no stranger to calamity. Perhaps that’s why, even in the midst of a natural disaster that could have caused chaos, I saw calm and order and even smiles.