Preparing a transdisciplinary research project on urban flood impacts in Ubon Ratchathani

 Flooding in Ubon Ratchathani (Source: Bangkok Post)

Flooding in Ubon Ratchathani (Source: Bangkok Post)

While heavy rains for the early onset of the monsoon season may be a fact of life for people in Ubon Ratchathani and most parts of northeast Thailand (Issan), the flooding of 2017 proved to be more than most could handle. With some parts of the city facing up to 30 centimeters of water during last year’s floods, over 578,814 households in 12,949 villages were affected and at least 29 people died during the summer deluge (21,330 families and 175,832 rai of agricultural areas alone in Ubon Ratchathani).1 For this reason, on February 6 and 7, 2018, researchers from Chulalongkorn University (CSDS and the Faculty of Architecture), Ubon Ratchathani University and the University of Brighton, United Kingdom traveled to Ubon Ratchathani town, Thailand to begin some preliminary scoping fieldwork to better understand how extensive and regular flooding is being caused, how it is affecting the various communities in the area, and how local officials are handling it and planning for the future. The project in sight aims to employ a transdisciplinary research method, focusing on the grassroots and upward to ensure inclusivity and innovation from the community level. Similarly, the researchers interested in this project come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and areas of specialties. Flooding in this region of Thailand and many others around the country have been increasing as urban expansion and wider watershed changes threaten wetlands which naturally protect and serve as a barrier to deluges, so this proposed project is also equally interested on finding innovative approaches that can act as solutions for all of society.

 Stakeholder meeting

Stakeholder meeting

The first day of visits began with a stakeholder meeting at the local municipal office with a mix of participants who live in the community and those working in government offices associated with flood control and/or prevention. This meeting is a highly important piece of the initial project preparation process in order to ensure proper transdisciplinary research technique which is inclusive of all stakeholders who are affected by flooding or actively involved in working on solutions. The meeting was facilitated by Ubon Ratchathani University’s Dr. Kanokwan Manorom, and gave participants, particularly from the community, a chance to voice some of their experiences about past flooding and fears for the future, as well as constructive inputs in how they see solutions or opportunities to work closer with local government agencies to prevent future loss of land and livelihood. One of the most challenging issues identified was how several large private companies had built flood defense for their retail outlets that redistributed the impacts of flooding to nearby, whilst community members found it difficult to raise their concerns on this. A representative from the Thai Royal Irrigation Department (RID) was also in attendance to connect on a more grassroots level with community members and provide an alternative point of view of the issues from an official, government agency perspective.

On the second day of the trip, a meeting between the research team and the Thai Royal Irrigation Department (RID) was held to learn more about the current information and strategies they are using to implement solutions in flooding areas. Maps, models and projected trends were shared giving the team a more comprehensive view on what information has already been captured, how it is being used to implement procedures and solutions and what gaps are existing that can possibly be filled through this research project. From this meeting and others, it became apparent that there is presently a relatively short-term approach to addressing flooding in the watershed, in particular with regard to impacts on urban areas.

 Research team with RID officials

Research team with RID officials

After the morning meeting, the team visited Warinchamrap community that is one of the areas of the city most affected by flooding. Casual discussions with community leaders and members allowed the team to begin getting an initial understanding on how deeply multiple flooding occurrences were impacting their communities, particularly the economy and livelihoods of these communities. We learned how some of the community had been able to work effectively in a network to relocate to a new housing area less vulnerable to flooding and build a community with a strong sense of solidarity in the process. For those remaining in the flooded area, they were keen, to explore how preparation for flood events, in collaboration with the local authorities, could be improved, and how the impacts of flooding could be better managed and compensated. However, regardless of the countless stories of hardships shared, one thing became clear, and that was a high level of resilience and determination has allowed these people to continue their dignity and livelihoods.

 Community members in Warinchamrap (Credit: C. Nomai

Community members in Warinchamrap (Credit: C. Nomai