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.