This is the third day that I woke up in a temporary home in Bangkok since I evacuated from my house in Nonthaburi. Everyday, the first thing I do is to look outside the window to see if the flood came during the night or not.

(Picture via http://blogs.sacbee.com/photos/2011/10/floods-inch-closer-to-heart-of.html )
I’ve been working in a non-profit sector that always has a little work on various natural disasters in the past since Tsunami in 2004.  It seems to me that this 2011 flood is the biggest in size and scope. I also notice a very different mood and tone of disaster coordination this time. In the past, starting from 2004 Tsunami, the situation was terrible but there was no division among the non-profits and volunteer groups that were helping to deal with the situation. Everyone helps everyone else in unity. P Nu Ring, a leader of a non-profit organization ‘The Mirror Art’ (http://www.bannok.com/) was leading the front line of crisis coordination. I did not do much except trying to help on various issues from the back-end. The Volunteer Spirit Network (http://www.volunteerspirit.org) also was formed and we were helping with the setup in order to mobilize volunteers for the recovery phase. Social capital was quite high back then, people don’t really question each other’s intent. We came out of the crisis with a stronger civil society sector.

Then the 2010 flood, the worst we had for decades, at least up until last year. Almost half the middle part of the country was flooded and the South also was hard-hit with storm resulted in great flood. The political situation was quite bad but during the flood, however, at least among people working on crisis coordination, the morale was quite good. We saw emergence of partnership between government and citizen sector (especially those volunteer groups arising from the Facebook groups). The government back then was completely open to support from private sector and civil society organization, and included representatives from these organizations in key decision process.

Although non of government information systems related to flood are in the same format, but we manually merged those data with the help of volunteers and private sector before sending it to Mr. Apirak, then the head of Flood Relief center setup at the government house, and the Prime Minister. The flood coordination committee make decisions based on those data set. We proposed an international emergency information protocol / standard so that different departments can pull their data together, although it was adopt by ICT ministry but nothing came out of it after the flood. All in all, things were tough and there were lots of crashing egotism both from the government officials and few leaders from various volunteer groups, however, collaboration was quite here.

One thing I’ve learned from that experience was that although fast things can happened via online social networking coordination, politicians and perhaps TV stations, however, the real relief effort with scale only happen through the slower moving government bodies. Therefore, it is important to keep the ego inflation of social networking heroism in-check and keep the line of communication to the various government agencies open. Government officials might be slow and did lots of mistakes but at the end no one has the kind of resource the government has for recovery. TV station announcers, politicians or social network heroes go into various areas quickly but they also came out quickly without much follow-up, only unknown government officials stays until the water subsides and entering the recovery phase. Thus, crisis coordination linkage between civil society, private sector and government must be maintained somehow through out the process. We came out of the crisis with the network of 40 civil society organizations working together for flood coordination. However, signs of broken trust among them were quite apparent due to lots of inflated egotism through out the flood relief process.

Fast-forward to present crisis, the truly worst flood of the century in Thailand. Although initially everyone seems to be working together, after various blunders by the government and its insensitivity to Red shirt politics for relief logistics, the complete fragmentation of civil society groups working on flood relief seemed to occurred. There are now five or six key centers working on flood relief and crisis coordination but they don’t quite work together, the sharing of information was minimal and seems to occur via personal relations among people working across these centers. At the heart of the problem, there are lack of collaboration among various civil society groups due to deeply divided political mistrust among them as well as unchecked and inflated heroism by few key figures. The 40 organizations pledge for flood coordination last year had completely collapsed. It seems that politics and heroic egotism had disrupted trust among different groups working on this crisis.

The problem is that this crisis is bigger than anything we’ve faced, the amount of damage is probably 4-5 times the size of 2010 flood. There will be no one with enough resource to tackle the situation, especially during the recovery phase. The government will be forced to take massive loan for rebuilding the nation. Collaboration among various civil society groups, private sector and government must resume to take on such challenge, although each are free to pursue what they think are best options for recovery, but all efforts must be somehow coordinated.

The first thing that needed to be rebuilt is the trust among citizen sector groups and organizations, at least that will probably created various successful recovery models to influence part of the massive government budget that will be pouring into the recovery phase. Lonesome heroism by various fractions will create terminal cancer rather than cure.

Effective decentralized actions required trust & coordination. Without which, we can’t prevent the current sinking of Thailand.

 

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