Bloomberg News

‘Obsolete’ Weather Radar Blamed as Full Dams Worsen Thai Floods

October 16, 2011

Oct. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Thailand’s weather service blamed obsolete equipment for failing to predict the severity of rains that killed 307 people, saying authorities ignored upgrade requests that could have mitigated the impact of flooding.

Requests from Thailand’s Meteorological Department for a 4 billion baht ($130 million) overhaul of its radar and modeling systems have gone unheeded since 2009, deputy director-general Somchai Baimoung said. The new equipment would allow the department to more accurately forecast seasonal rains, he said, giving dam operators information needed to adjust water levels.

“If we can get this new system, it can help people,” Somchai said in a phone interview yesterday. “No one expected rainfall would be this much. Right now our system, including hardware and software, is obsolete.”

The difficulty in managing monsoon rains may shave 1.5 percentage points off growth in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy as floods force companies including Toyota Motor Corp. and Sony Corp. to close factories. The deluge has also damaged 13 percent of the rice fields in the world’s biggest exporter of the grain, according to the farm ministry.

Bhumibol dam, Thailand’s largest, retained most of its water prior to August to ensure sufficient supply for irrigating crops in the dry season, according to Boonin Chuenchavalit, who oversees its operation for state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. The amount of precipitation since then caught officials off guard, he said.

“We were aware rainfall would increase this year, but didn’t anticipate it would be a massive amount,” Boonin said by phone. “We have released some water by considering weather and flooding conditions since late July. Releasing so much water would worsen the flood situation.”

October Discharge

In June and July, authorities released an average of 4.5 million cubic meters of water per day from Bhumibol Dam as the water level increased to 63 percent of capacity, double the amount stored in the same period a year earlier, according to data from the Royal Irrigation Department.

The discharge increased to 22 million cubic meters per day on average in August and 26 million in September. From Oct. 1 to Oct. 14, as floods left hundreds of thousands scrambling for temporary shelter, an average of 77 million cubic meters has been released downstream each day, more than 17 times as much as in June and July, the data show.

In Sirikit Dam, the country’s second-largest that feeds the flooded area, discharge rates averaged 54 million cubic meters per day from Aug. 1 to Oct. 14, five times more than in June and July, according to Irrigation Department data. On Aug. 1, the reservoir was 79 percent full, holding twice as much water as the same date a year earlier.

Dry Season Storage

“If water was released from the dams in a proper way, the flooding would be less severe,” said Suphat Vongvisessomjai, a water expert who has designed flood defenses across Thailand. “They just kept on collecting water so they have as much as possible to use in the dry season. This is the main problem.”

Suthep Noipairoj, head of the Irrigation Department’s Office of Hydrology and Water Management, said discharges from the dams were reduced starting in April because some agriculture lands downstream were already flooded.

“The dams are full because the rainfall in the northern part of the country reached a new record high this year,” he said by phone. “It’s not true that we reduced the water released because we were concerned about water shortages. The people who said this just want to find a scapegoat.”

Heavy Storms

Rainfall in July and August was about 25 percent more than the 30-year average, according to the latest available data from the Meteorological Department. Reservoirs at larger dams across the country are 93 percent full on average, compared with 68 percent a year ago, the Irrigation Department said on its website on Oct. 14.

Five tropical storms deluged Thailand in the past few months, including Nock-Ten, which also struck the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos and China, killing more than 100 people. The water from the northern dams takes nine days to reach Bangkok, Egat Assistant Governor Kitti Tancharoen said Oct. 14.

“If they knew for sure the rain is coming, maybe they would’ve released a little bit more water,” said Chaiwat Prechawit, a former deputy director of the Irrigation Department. “The Meteorological Department can say there will be more rain than last year, but they couldn’t predict the storms would hit Thailand directly with such heavy rain.”

River Basin

The floods are centered in the Chao Phraya River Basin, an area the size of Florida where water flows from Chiang Mai in the north down to Bangkok and into the Gulf of Thailand. Average elevation in the area is less than two meters (6.6 feet) above sea level, according to the World Bank.

Since the 1950s, more than 300 dams have been built to hold water from Thailand’s monsoon rains from July to October for use the rest of the year. Bhumibol and Sirikit, funded by the World Bank after World War II to provide Bangkok with electricity and turn Thailand into a commercial rice exporter, can irrigate 400,000 million hectares (1,544 square miles) in the dry season, an area six times bigger than Singapore.

In Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand 76 kilometers (47 miles) north of Bangkok that is now a United Nations World Heritage Site, the annual floods helped the city repel Burmese invasions. In the 1980s, industrial parks opened in the province, attracting Japanese manufacturers such as Nikon Corp. and Pioneer Corp., which are now among the 930 factories damaged in the disaster, according to the Industry Ministry.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra assured Bangkok residents yesterday that the capital would be spared from flooding even as a high tide elevates water levels. The Cabinet will review the budget to help recover from the floods and manage them in the future, she said Oct. 11.

“Preventative measures are always the most effective,” said Suvit Yodmani, a former Cabinet member and ex-director of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center. “As a whole, we could’ve done more.”

--With assistance from Suttinee Yuvejwattana in Bangkok. Editor: Tony Jordan, Patrick Harrington.

To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at dtenkate@bloomberg.net; Supunnabul Suwannakij in Bangkok at ssuwannakij@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net


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