Confusion widespread in Thailand this typhoon season

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When 65 of of Thailand's 77 provinces were affected by flooding last year, the English-language media was awash with conflicting information coming directly from the Thai authorities. One year on and while we may not be in for another bout of devastating widespread deluges, news outlets are still struggling to piece together the basic building blocks of water-related stories, adding, at times irresponsibly, to the general confusion of an already nervous population in Bangkok and beyond.

Let's start with Gaemi. The first alert I got of Tropical Depression Gaemi came on October 1. At that time it was somewhere in between China, Vietnam and the Philippines. After being upgraded to a tropical storm, it moved southeast towards the Philippines and then around October 4 it changed direction and started moving towards Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

Bangkok Post first reported about Gaemi on October 2 and The Nation on October 3. Right off the bat there was confusion. Bangkok Post:

For the first time this year, weather watchers have a storm system to watch in the South China Sea.

This was incorrect. There have been a number of storm systems in the South China Sea already this year. Quite a few, in fact. Vicente, Tembin, Pakhar and Talim, to name but four.


There was then a lot of talk about provinces going on storm alert as Gaemi made its approach to Thailand. It was being written about as if it was a category 5 super typhoon, when in reality it was early on predicted to hit Thailand as a tropical depression or below — basically the remnants of a tropical storm. While still producing a lot of rain, it's unclear whether local capacities to handle any potential flooding situation would have been significantly overwhelmed.

I didn't get the impression that this fact was effectively reported to the general public. People were expecting something catastrophic in Bangkok and elsewhere, whereas what hit was the kind of heavy rainfall you see most days during the monsoon season. This was how Gaemi was forecast to play out even before the weekend, but where this information was reported at all, it was usually buried deep down in stories.

In this age of social media, hysteria spreads quickly and Gaemi was no exception. People have become very trigger happy in their social media updates about weather in Thailand, so you can imagine how folks were reacting with Thailand's "first tropical storm in three years" on its way.

But worse still was when it was reported that there was "[a]nother big storm on way after Gaemi". This came straight from the government:

Another big storm is forming and will start taking its toll on the country on Oct 20, following tropical storm Gaemi which is expected to hit Thailand tomorrow, Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Theera Wongsamut says.

The second storm of this year will be named Phrapiroon, a Thai name, and it is forecast to deluge almost the same areas expected to be battered by Gaemi _ the lower Northeast, East, Central region and upper South, Mr Theera said.

The storm is actually spelt "Prapiroon" and it is, in fact, nowhere near Thailand.

Storm map

As you can see, it's east of the Philippines and is now heading away from the country. I don't know where this date of October 20 came from, but at the time Theera made the statement, Prapiroon wasn't even on the tropical storm radar, let alone about to move to Thailand and "deluge almost the same areas expected to be battered by Gaemi". It's this kind of information, which the English-language media tends to run with, that confuses people.

National Disaster Warning Centre director Somsak Khaosuwan said the second storm was expected to weaken into a depression or low pressure area which would result in scattered rain not as heavy as last month's.

I don't know where this information came from, but from what I can see, it's totally wrong. It looks like Somsak might actually have been referring to Gaemi here, but it's difficult to be sure.

Now we get to my next point of contention: messages coming from the authorities. This from a Bangkok Post story yesterday:

Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi yesterday warned of a storm surge, especially in Phetchaburi, as Gaemi triggered heavy rainfall in some eastern provinces.

Mr Plodprasop's storm surge prediction, however, has been downplayed by the Meteorological Department and a natural disaster expert, who said that a surge was unlikely.

The contradictory information came as the storm, which was believed to have weakened into a depression, reached the eastern region, and rains began in Sa Kaeo, Trat, and Chantaburi provinces.

So that's one of Thailand's leading English-language papers opening a story with conflicting information coming from the government and the Met Department. This is not good, especially after the shambolic way the Thai authorities communicated disaster information last year.

"Let me warn fishermen to avoid going out to sea for the next couple of days. Whoever doesn't believe this should be detained [by police] because the waves could be as high as 4 metres," said Mr Plodprasop, who also heads the government's Water and Flood Management Commission (WFMC).

"Particularly in Phetchaburi, giant waves, but not as huge as a tsunami, are expected," he said during a video conference with government officials from Gulf of Thailand coastal provinces.

Thanawat Jarupongsakul, head of the natural disaster studies unit at Chulalongkorn University's faculty of science, said an analysis of the storm's route showed it would weaken into a depression and not move out to sea.

Waves in the Gulf of Thailand would reach about 30cm high on average, not as high as the 4-5m suggested by the WFMC, he added.

This from another story:

Deputy chief of the weather bureau Somchai Baimuang said people should just stay calm as the storm moves towards Thailand and go about their normal life.

His comment was at odds with Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi, who heads the government's Water and Flood Management Committee. Mr Plodprasop asked people to stay home unless they really need to go out during the storm. and leave the streets free for work crews combatting any flooding.

The science minister on Friday said his message was routine practice in Western countries and was intended to ensure public safety and give relief crews freedom to work without disruption.

Despite the warning, Plodrasop actually acknowledged that Gaemi would "likely weaken to a tropical depression once it enters the country". I don't know if it's just me, but the information seems like it's all over the place.

And let's not forget, Bangkok has just been through its wettest month in 100 years or 50 years or 30 years, depending on who you ask. But how could that be when Plodprasop was saying "rain volume is far less than last year".

This from The Nation:

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) yesterday insisted that rainfall in the capital this month (September) has been the highest in 100 years.

"I have clear information," Sanya Sheenimit said in his capacity as chief of BMA's Drainage and Sewerage Department. He added that the total rainfall in the capital had reached 825.5 millimetres.

That would be nearly three times the September average of 344.2 millimetres.

The day before:

The BMA… claimed that the capital was experiencing a historic high amount of rainfall this month. According to the BMA Drainage and Sewerage Department, the total rainfall in September this year has already reached 721 millimetres – the highest amount in three decades.

The Met Department contradicted all of the above:

Meteorological Department deputy director-general Somchai Baimuang, however, questioned those figures. He said his department found that as of Tuesday, the total rainfall in the current month had reached just 340.7 millimetres.

"How could the rainfall nearly double within one day?" he said.

So whether the Thai capital has just been through an incredibly wet or a decidedly average September is up for debate. From my fickle observations of living in central Bangkok, it didn't feel a whole lot wetter than previous monsoon seasons I've lived through. People have been using social media to talk about how unbelievably wet it's been this year, but honestly, isn't it like this every year?

I remember when I first moved to Thailand in 2005 and monsoon season came. It would rain a lot nearly every day, the streets would flood for a while and then they'd drain. Every September it rains in Bangkok for at least three weeks. It's always been like this.

On the one hand, it's good that the Thai authorities have been very vocal about how prepared they've been for flooding and storms this year. There have been no shortage of reassurances that they have things under control. But there are still mixed messages coming from all corners and it is once again difficult to gauge what is really going on. There is no unified voice providing people with information, so it's little wonder many turn to social media to draw their own conclusions. Lest we forget, some parts of Thailand have already experienced flooding, leaving many people to ask themselves if we were in for a repeat of 2011.

So that's my rather long-winded, Bangkok-centric take on the weather. Feel free to challenge me on any of the points I've raised.

Addendum: The Nation summed up Gaemi really in this story today:

Tropical storm Gaemi – the source of much anxiety across the country, thanks to severe warnings by government officials – had weakened to a tropical depression by the time it hit Thailand late on Sunday.

Just they forgot to mention the role the media plays in creating anxiety.

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