The Thai floods and the geographics of perception – Part 2: Certain fear of uncertainty

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 23, 2011

This is part two of a two-part series on the discrepancies on reporting the floods and the fear of Bangkokians. In part one yesterday, we explained the process of news-gathering and pointed out possible sources for errors and misjudgments. Today, we explore the possible reasons why people in the capital became suddenly fearful, as the water made its way to the metropolis.

The view on Pinklao district from an elevated road on the Western side of the Chao Praya river, one day after the tides reached on all-time high, fully flooding the district on October 30, 2011 (Photo by Saksith Saiyasombut)

Disaster fatigue or when good news is not good enough

Most of the news channels, both international and domestic, considerably bumped up their airtime when the floods were approaching Bangkok and had already inundated its outskirts. A week or two before that though, reports about floods around Ayutthaya province were not top of the agenda yet, despite the well-known ancient city, a World Heritage site, and many factories of multi-national corporations severely affected.

At that point in early October the official death toll had already surpassed 200 (while many more died in the same time frame were not counted yet, read why here), but some international reporters still had to fight for their stories to be given more prominence. One correspondent jokingly said, “the Ark has to be swimming through Bangkok with the Ghaddafi sons on it,” before the network would be willing to bump the Thai floods any higher. On the other hand, any news is good news, real good news has be extraordinary good, downright miraculous.

When the water has eventually made its way to the parts of central Bangkok, such as the districts of Lad Prao in the North, Pinklao in the West and some overspill into the areas along the Chao Praya river, international coverage was already on the decline as seemingly every possible angle of this flood crisis was played out already. Ironically at the same time in late October, the floods hit the northeastern province of Khon Kaen, which were largely ignored in the media.

At this time, Thais had been pelted with wall-to-wall coverage by the Thai TV channels (including by the ever-active Sorayuth Suthasanajinda of Channel 3) for weeks already, which were giving out up-to-the-minute updates, but that flood of minuscule information bits swamped the viewers, who where not given the bigger picture of this disaster (with notable exceptions), leading to confusion and anxiety (see below).

It could also result in numbness, people simply not following the news anymore. This phenomenon is disaster fatigue and has been noted in the past several times already – much to the detriment of the victims:

Charities know this as “donor fatigue,” but it might be more accurately described as disaster fatigue — the sense that these events are never-ending, uncontrollable and overwhelming. Experts say it is one reason Americans have contributed relatively little so far to victims of the [2008] Myanmar cyclone and China’s earthquake. Ironically, the more bad news there is, the less likely people may be to give. (…)

“It’s too much pain, too much tragedy for someone to process, and so we tend to pull ourselves away from it and either close off from it out of psychological defense, or it overwhelms us,” says Cynthia Edwards, a professor of psychology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.

‘Disaster fatigue’ blamed for drop in giving“, Associated Press, May 15, 2008

Thai Angst: the fear of the unknown, uncertain and unseen

While reporters have to define the real area of Bangkok to their foreign desk editors and producers, the residents of Bangkok were not too concerned about the floods that were ravaging in the North for weeks and months already. That was at the latest until the water has arrived in the outskirts of the capital and people began panicking, most visibly by stockpiling drinking water bottles, which led to a shortage in the shops.

But why were Bangkokians, especially those who were least likely going to get hit, so afraid and anxious?

One aspect was the poor information policy of the authorities. Both the government’s Flood Relief Operation Center (FROC) and the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) were at conflict most of the time, giving out contradicting information or just simply not working together, which frustrated those affected. Both were also guilty of giving a premature evacuation order (Ploprasob Surassawadee‘s for FROC and Bangkok governor Sukhumband Paribatra) at least once, causing unnecessary panic.

One of the real reasons why the people of the city react the way they did though is this: After a military coup, countless violent political protests and sieges of aiports, government buildings and public roads, this city has a sense of anxiety not unlike New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: a sense of being constantly under siege by something or somebody that separates Bangkok from the rest of the country even more. An incident at Klong Sam Wa Sluice Gate (we reported) is a perfect example of the conflict between inside and outside Bangkok in miniature form.

People are fearful of what they do not know and the uncertainty about when and how bad the floods will hit Bangkok, a slow-moving disaster weeks in the making, was stretching the patience to the fullest. Not knowing if you have to leave the house, not knowing if the water, that has fully inundated the next district, could come to your place, not knowing how long you would have to relocate is something that takes its toll on the mental state, not only to those who were already affected:

Earlier this month, the Thai public health minister announced that the government had dispatched psychiatrists to treat flood victims. He reported that 114,388 people were diagnosed with mental health problems because of the flooding, of which 6,091 patients were highly depressed and 1,137 were at risk of committing suicide.

Smiles Hide Fears as Clinton Visits Flood Victims“, by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, Novemeber 17, 2011

Like in any extraordinary situation or event, the role of social media shows both its beneficial but also detrimental side, as Jon Russell of The Next Web Asia analyzes:

“The Internet as a whole has been important during the flood with many news sites recording record traffic and blogs telling individual accounts of escaping from rising water,” he said.

But commentators said that, while warnings of dangers lurking in the water or calls to donate blood served a purpose, the incessant flow of unedited, unchecked information risked adding to confusion and further rattling nerves.

“Social media can be as misleading as they are helpful and that has been true at times during the Thai floods,” said Russell. “While it is useful to be able to look up locations and get updates from reporters and civilians on the scene, there is no validation of information and misleading statements can be passed around as fact very easily.”

Social media use soars in flood-hit Thailand“, by Michelle Fitzpatrick, Agence France Presse, November 5, 2011

Conclusion

Now that the worst seems to be over and the tide are slowly, but steady receding in many parts of the country, a sense of normalcy returns to Bangkok. However, the suffering for many in the affected areas continue, there’s still conflict along the barriers and the death toll is now over 600. Headlines saying that inner Bangkok has dodged a bullet were inaccurate at best and were neglecting the suffering that is still happening the areas outside of the capital. Nevertheless, some were still insisting selective opinion even when the streets of the districts of Lad Phrao in the North and Pinklao just on the West side of the river (see picture above) – leading some to the ridiculous backtracking á la “it’s still outer inner Bangkok”…!

The point is not if Bangkok has been saved, nor is it the special protection the capital was given. The point is that the real tragedy was a man-made natural disaster, a series of mismanagement, the political fights – all that at the costs of lives, business, whole existences lost by the water. The point is that there has been a sense of Bangkok vs the rest that was apparent in the political struggles of past years and now in the measures to protect the heart of Bangkok, while sacrificing those who happen to live on the ‘wrong’ side.

For the international journalists in the field reporting under very difficult (logistical and emotional) circumstances, it was a challenge to highlight the individual fates of the victims, but also trying to give an accurate bigger picture of the crisis – something that was sorely missing in the domestic media coverage.

While the first clean-ups are underway, one can only hope that this operation will not be a white-wash, that the causes will not be swept under a rug and the same useless mantra of “forgive and forget” will be preached.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.