Amid advances in technology, residents of a province in southern Thailand have learned to rely on a seemingly low-technology gadget to save lives as tropical storms and typhoons unleash devastating flash floods in the region.
A new study by the Economy and Environment Program of Southeast Asia (EEPSEA) covering six villages in Nakhon Si Thammarat province showed that the two-way radio, despite the prevalence and accessibility of more modern communication equipment and online data, has become a key warning device that relay alerts to people about an impending disaster.
Conducted by Dr. Kannika Thampanishvong from the Thailand Development Research Institute (TORI), the study examined the factors that affect people’s decisions to evacuate when there is a flash flood. It surveyed 332 villagers, most of them farmers or rubber tapers.
Dr. Thampanishvong’s aim was to provide information that will help the government reduce casualties and losses from future flash floods.
Southern Thailand is often affected by tropical storms, depressions and typhoons. The heavy rain brought about by these weather events is often accompanied by flash floods, which disrupt people’s lives and affect their homes and property.
Between the end of March and the beginning of April 2011, prolonged heavy rainfall caused flash floods in 10 provinces in Southern Thailand and affected over two million people.
Sixty-four people died while over 40,000 residents had to be evacuated during this period. In addition, the flash floods caused financial losses reaching over four billion Thai baht, records from the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation showed..
Six villages took part in the EEPSEA study: Pianbon, Sarmthep, Wangsarn, Nakaowat, Natorn and Tamlord. These foothill villages are near waterways and have been severely affected by past flash floods. Of these villages, only Pianbon had access to flash flood warning sirens. However, according to residents, the sirens have been switched off because there were a few false alarms in the past.
The presence of an effective warning system proves crucial to villagers as almost half (43.4 % or 144 villagers) of respondents said they would evacuate once they receive alerts to an impending disaster.
The study’s results showed that people were more likely to evacuate if they receive a flash flood warning. “They were also more likely to evacuate if they had information about safe meeting places; prior information about the existence of an evacuation meeting place increased the probability of evacuation by almost 70 percent,” the study said.
It said the respondents noted the two key advantages of two-way radio in flash flood alerts: it is not dependent on electricity supply and it can work in remote rural areas.
The only setback of using two-way radio, the study found out, was very few had access to this technology. Of the 332 respondents, only 54 respondents (16%) owned a unit.
“Battery-powered two-way radios are quite expensive and many respondents said they could not afford it. Therefore, the government has an important role to play in helping people access this technology by either providing investment or subsidies. The government could also help with licensing and training,” it said.
The respondents considered television and radio as effective sources of information when flash floods were a few days or weeks away. “However, as power often fails immediately before or during flash floods, these channels were thought to be ineffective during flash floods events,” the study said.
It, however, encouraged the public to use television and radio to obtain medium- and long-term meteorological information, weather forecast and warnings about future disaster events.
The mobile phone, while it is readily available and relatively cheap, was the least preferred warning channel among the respondents because people doubted the authenticity of warnings received through this medium.
“While mobile phones are a relatively low-cost technology, people felt that they could not rely on the authenticity of the warnings they receive through them and that they are not functional immediately before or during a disaster since phone lines usually become congested,” the study said.
To overcome problems highlighted with the use of mobile phones as warning devices, the study said the government should develop a unified public warning system and make sure that the responsible government agencies are well coordinated.
“If this is done, people at risk can be confident in the authenticity and credibility of any warnings they receive. Network providers should also try to improve the reception of mobile phones, especially in flash flood hazard areas,” it said.
There were mixed perceptions about the effectiveness of family members as sources of flash flood information and warnings.
“Some respondents felt that people in their families were reliable and trustworthy sources of information, hence they were ranked quite highly. However, other respondents felt that their family members would not have better information than they would have themselves, thus their warnings were not felt to be of much use,” the study said.
The study also highlighted the role of community flash flood wardens in disseminating alerts.
These teams of local volunteers can assist residents, such as the elderly and young children, who cannot reach or access traditional warning channels, it said. “However, the government must do more to train the volunteers and make sure that local people know that they are authorized personnel who can be trusted,” it added.
The study urged the government to train people on how to obtain relevant meteorological information locally. “For example, community members could be taught how to check the amount of precipitation by reading the rain gauges provided by the Department of Mineral Resources. This information would help local residents better prepare themselves for any flash floods,” it said.
The online data, meteorological data and modern technology detect the danger of forthcoming severe storm and flash flood and these information then feed through different warning channels including the two-way radio before reaching the targeted communities.
The study said the main reason people gave for staying in their villages despite the flash floods was the perception that they were safer inside their own houses. Some respondents did not evacuate because they wanted to protect their belongings and properties.
“Another important reason was that some residents had been cut off in the past by damaged roads, which had prevented them from evacuating,” the study said.
It also highlighted a more fundamental problem that was putting people at risk of flash floods: the location of settlements.
“Because there has not been effective enforcement of the Forest Reserve Act and the National Park Act, many communities have encroached into protected forest reserve areas. In many cases, they have constructed their houses on hill slopes. This has put their houses at risk from slope failures, gully erosion and debris flow- all problems that are exacerbated by flash floods,” it said.
“Looking into the future, these settlement practices need to be banned to reduce future losses of life and the destruction of personal property,” it said.