Puzzling Over the Flood

James Fahn pieces together the Thai disaster from international and local news

In the movie The Paper, a group of editors for a New York tabloid are trying to decide how prominently to print the story of a terrible but distant plane crash when one of them asks if any New Yorkers died. It’s a morbid question that seems in poor taste, but it also reveals just how much of a local bias we have when it comes to news.

The same is true of coverage of distant weather. Do people care about storms in foreign lands? Not unless it somehow affects them, or people they care about. A weather-related disaster in a faraway region may briefly fascinate a wide audience, but attention spans tend to be limited.

People shouldn’t ignore those faraway stories. In our globalized world, the disruption of food, supply, and transport chains affect wide swathes of the planet, and it is becoming increasingly clear that burning fossil fuels and deforestation are increasing the risk of disasters around the world. A recently leaked report from the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states, “There is at least a 2-in-3 probability that climate extremes have already worsened because of man-made greenhouse gases,” the Associated Press’ Seth Borenstein reports.

In the case of the floods in Thailand, I had particularly good reason to pay attention. Having lived there for many years, and having friends and family there, I’ve been riveted by news of the rising flood waters that have inundated parts of the country, killed more than 500 people, and are threatening Bangkok. Despite now living in the US, I’ve received plenty of information about the disaster, both in Thai and in English from Thai newspapers such as The Nation and the Bangkok Post.

Following these events from overseas led to several lessons. First of all, the mix of media I relied on was probably different than from those living in Thailand, and that in turn made it clear that local residents were often focused on subjects and looking for information that was more practical and pragmatic than I was.

With little or no access to Thai broadcast media, I received virtually all news reports through friends and colleagues posting on social media, or by purposely looking at Thai media sites. Had I relied solely on the American press, I would know virtually nothing about it. Sure, the wire agencies and national newspapers have coverage, but you generally have to dig deep to find it. Much of the international coverage focused on how the floods are expected to affect global supply chains, particularly for certain technology products and commodities such as rice, and cause an estimated $6 billion in damage.

Much of the Thai coverage, on the other hand, focused on the politics surrounding the flood and relief efforts. Bangkokians have been frustrated by dysfunctional leadership during the crisis and the often contradictory information they’ve received about what areas were being threatened, what action to take, and whether to evacuate. Residents of some areas, resentful that their homes have been flooded while others remain protected, have illegally opened sluice gates, threatening neighboring areas. The Thai government declined offers of assistance from the US, and no one seemed to know why.

Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that there’s a lot of anger in Bangkok at the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. If you’ve followed Thailand’s political strife over the last few years, you’ll know that many city-dwellers already disliked her Pheu Thai party and its “red shirt” followers even before the floods. The crisis at least brought competing politicians together in at least a brief show of unity, although any cooperation seems to have been short lived. But all politics—like most weather reports—is local, they say. If you’re living far away, some of these political disputes can seem awfully small, compared to the immense challenge of figuring out how to prevent more damage from occurring.

Indeed, what seemed most surprising about the coverage of the floods was all the confusion and uncertainty over their cause. I took a shot at explaining it in a blog post for the Travelfish website. Like many deltaic cities around the world—Shanghai, Shenzhen, Dhaka, Kolkata, New Orleans—the problem starts with the fact that Bangkok was built on a flood plain. As reported by New Mandala, one of the best online magazines about Southeast Asia, flood waters from northern Thailand stoked by unusually heavy monsoon rains this year would have had to pass through Bangkok or its environs to get to the sea even if there weren’t exacerbating factors.

But local media reports have focused on accusations that dam authorities managing reservoirs upstream exacerbated the crisis by releasing too much water at the wrong time, an issue ably explored by the excellent Bangkok Pundit blog. There has also been good reporting on how Thai development has progressed without sufficient consideration for flood prevention. Indeed, one proposed solution is to cut new canals through roads that currently block speedy drainage. There has been debate on the role of deforestation in worsening floods, although there has been too little attention to the probably more crucial impact of the loss of wetlands.

Also deserving more coverage is the role of climate change in causing heavier rainfall. Mike Lemonick of Climate Central offers a useful approach to understanding how local and global factors combine to create disasters like the Thai floods. He compares extreme weather events to heart attacks, and suggests that the growth of mega-cities, particularly in flood-prone regions, puts more people and infrastructure in harm’s way much as high blood pressure sets the stage for cardiac arrest. Likewise, climate change is an additional risk factor for weather-related disasters, much as an individual’s bad dietary habits increase the chance of heart disease.

But perhaps the most interesting media piece on the floods used a far more innovative approach: a series of short animated films that aim to both educate and entertain audiences, first in explaining what caused the floods, and then how to assess the risk, preparing for flooding, and finally what to do when the water comes. The films were created by a group of young Thai animators called RooSuFlood, posted on YouTube, and quickly went viral, spreading even to other countries around the region.

The filmmakers’ explanation for the floods was in many ways quite simplistic, certainly with less nuance than an in-depth feature article. But for a public looking for quick and easily understood reasons, that may have been a plus. And the way they depicted the floodwaters as a group of whales trying to swim out to sea was quite fun. By attempting to communicate in a way that is innovative, informative and yet entertaining, RooSuFlood’s approach would probably meet the approval of US media critic Randy Olson, who has been urging communicators to be less cerebral and more visceral. Olson focuses more on climate communications, but his advice could equally apply to efforts to report on other complex environmental issues.

Most of all, the films offered some useful, practical advice to people sorely in need of it. That seemed to be in short supply, as one of the biggest complaints heard during the crisis is that there was a lack of clear and accurate warnings. Although it’s often overlooked among all the emergency response and relief measures that need to be taken during a natural disaster, one of the most fundamental requirements is simply for good information as to what are the risks and what to do about them.

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James Fahn is the executive director of Internews's Earth Journalism Network and the author of A Land on Fire. Tags: , , ,