Livelihoods at risk as more flooding expected

The market in Ayutthaya where Arun Kaewan used to sell goods is now a river. The factory where her son used to work is a lake.

"We'll start our new lives from nothing," Kaewan, a 43-year-old mother-of-six said from the Thammasat University gym outside Bangkok, one of a string of evacuation centres hastily provided by authorities in recent weeks.

Kaewan is among 4,000 evacuees at the shelter - also at renewed flood risk - unsure how or when they will be able to rebuild their lives. Many come from the central province of Ayutthaya, where scores of industrial estates are now inundated.

More than 2.4 million people in Thailand are affected, with 28 provinces flooded, the government's Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DPPM) reported on 20 October. So far 320 people have died and three are missing.

"When the water stops, there's going to be a lot of work to do helping people rebuild their lives and their livelihoods," Yuxue Xue, acting country resident representative for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Thailand, told IRIN on 20 October. "The floods in Thailand will [affect] the lives of everyone and will be felt for years to come."

Off the clock

Scores of industrial plants and factories have been flooded, government sources say. In Ayutthaya alone, more than 900 industrial plants have been flooded, affecting more than 200,000 workers.

What that means for people like Kimhan, a 25-year-old factory worker, is even more uncertainty. The Cambodian migrant has spent the past 10 days at the Thammasat shelter, which counts between 300 to 400 migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar among its evacuees.

"I have to work," said Kimhan, whose employer has been helping to provide necessities for its workers at the shelter.

Under the Thai Labour Protection Act, employers are required to pay at least 75 percent of normal wages if operations are suspended. However, whether that is actually happening remains unclear.

Unregistered migrants who lack travel documents and cannot speak Thai are particularly vulnerable, according to the Migrant Working Group (MWG), a network of 20 local and international organizations working to assist them.

"Since they don't have travel documents, many of them are afraid to leave the designated province where they work," said an MWG representative, who declined to be named, adding that the government should be more active in assisting those migrant workers affected by the floods.

Some workers, such as Kaewan's son, are no longer receiving a cheque from their factory employers.

At the same time, experts are particularly worried that some factories may be forced to close altogether.

And while suspended workers worry about losing their jobs, Wang Jiyuan, country director of the International Labour Organization (ILO), says individual workers and self-employed people have even fewer safety nets.

"Many of them have lost the means of earning money during the flood, and they lack family or community support," he said.

Farmers have been particularly badly shaken, with an estimated 1.6 million hectares of farmland hit, which will undermine the country's rice production, Samarendu Mohanty of the International Rice Research Institute, said.

While it is too early to know, he estimated damage to the world's largest rice exporter would be between 3-5 million tons of paddy rice.

Help rebuilding

Photo: Shermaine Ho/IRIN
Crowded conditions at the Thammasat University gym

The Thai national government is leading the flood response, having already spent about US$80 million in emergency budget funds between 1 August and 10 October. An estimated $65 million more is needed should the flooding continue for another two months as predicted.

Various ministries, banks and business associations have been rolling out relief measures and proposals, with DDPM reporting on 17 October that more than 334,000 families would receive compensation of about $160 per family.

The Ministry of Industry has also proposed six-year soft loans to affected manufacturers.

And while such measures are positive, much more will be needed.

The economic costs of flooding have increased exponentially, as Thailand's industry has grown, Craig Williams, a regional information management officer with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Bangkok, explained.

"Fifty years ago, it was the rice fields that were being flooded. Now you've got industrial parks and urban centres and shopping malls [at risk]," he said. "While the cost of flooding a field may be one harvest, the cost of flooding an industrial park is thousands of jobs."

Estimates of economic loss since flooding began in July have ranged from $1.7 billion to $3.4 billion, with damage expected to be about 1 percent of GDP.

Risk continues

Meanwhile, as of 20 October, thousands of volunteers were working tirelessly to divert surging floodwaters from the north toward the eastern part of Bangkok, while authorities reportedly were allowing for a controlled release of water through Bangkok canals in a further effort to protect the economically important and densely populated centres of the capital.

Should they fail, the economic fallout could be much worse, experts warn.

According to the UN, more than eight million people have been affected by seasonal monsoon flooding in Southeast Asia, some since July, including four million in the Philippines, 2.4 million in Thailand, and 1.2 million in Cambodia.