Thursday, February 2, 2012

If the flood hits again, don't blame the 'gurus'

First, there was a rumour that Dr Sumet Tantivejjakul was so frustrated with the Strategic Committee for Water Resources Management (SCWRM) that he wanted to call it quits.
Then Premier Yingluck Shinawatra, who chairs the much-heralded committee that was set up to prevent recurrence of the devastating flood late last year, denied the report, saying that the well-known technocrat serving as adviser to the panel was staying on to help with this highly crucial mission.
Dr Sumet himself has sort of denied the story, saying that he is still advising the committee. “I haven’t attended some of the meetings because I am busy with other things.”
That’s not a straight denial, of course. But it doesn’t speak well for a committee that has been touted to be the country’s highest body to put the big flood behind us, once and for all.
Rumblings from the committee, however, have refused to go away. Most of the unofficial whispers from the committee members are mostly negative.
Then came Smith Thammasaroj, one of the “water gurus” on the committee, who pulled no punches in his public remarks over how messy it has been working with the group.
He made no secret of his belief that if things continue this way, the country will inevitably face another round of serious flooding by the middle of the year. Why? Things have at best been messy.
Smith said the committee had not come up with any concrete plan. “We don’t know where the floodways would be and how we can prevent the overflow of water into the east, west and through Bangkok,” he said.
Smith also complained that the Bt350,000m budget for the whole scheme was approved “within seconds” of the discussion – and there was hardly any input from the technocrats who had been asked to join because of their supposed expertise.
“Therefore, I believe we will face a flood the magnitude of which would be more or less like the big one last year in May or June. While the Bumiphol Dam is about 90% filled with water, we still haven’t started to clear up canals and waterways in Bangok,” the former Weather Bureau chief complained.
Has he quit? Like Dr Sumet, Smith issues a semi-denial. “I am staying on and I hope the politicians will listen more to technocrats like us,” he said.
As if to rub salt into the wound, another member of the committee, former Irrigation Direction General Pramote Maiklad, in a separate forum the following day, made a similar point: The public gets to hear lots of talk about what is being done but, as an insider, he revealed that neither the master plan nor related action plans have been laid down with any clear details so far.
His concern is that for short-term solutions, almost nothing has been learned from last year’s major inundation.
“If we get the same amount of water this year, we will be flooded just like last year. That’s because none of the embankments that were destroyed last time have been repaired to be ready to fight the next flood. A very good example is the Bangchomsri Water Gate which was built along the path that blocks the natural water flow. If water rises again, it will collapse again,” Promote said.
The 24-member committee apparently isn’t working the way it is supposed to. But the huge budget has been approved in support of “the Big Picture” with no detailed action plans to ensure that the money is well spent.
The paradox is that this is a panel that comprises all the country’s top water experts who are complaining that the politicians don’t seem too interested in listening to suggestions from them. Add to that the inevitable “clash of egos” among the “experts,” and you have the recipe for a disaster waiting to happen.
If the Big One revisits us this year and the country drowns once again, you know it’s not because we don’t have a sufficient number of “gurus” or that we haven’t gained enough knowledge from the catastrophic flood last year.
It’s because our political leadership can’t convince our creative minds that they are really up to the task

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