A man rows towards me in his wooden boat. I hand him a plastic bag containing toilet paper, packets of crackers and instant noodles, and a pack of water bottles. With a smile he presses his hands in a wai, the traditional Thai greeting, and then rows off.
This scene will repeat itself multiple times today.
It’s late October in 2013, and we’re in Ban Sang District in Prachin Buri Province, Thailand, a couple hours outside of Bangkok. Here, floods from recent periods of heavy rainfall have led to over a month of inundation for residents.
At the peak, forty-seven provinces out of 77 suffered from floods, with eighty dead. Disrupting the lives of over 4 million people, these will be called the worst floods in Thailand’s east in 50 years.
There is no coordinated relief plan across the region, only piecemeal efforts. Such as Hong Kong transplant and war correspondent Ben Kwok. Ben has organized this trip on his own. He says that “flooding is not the most difficult time. The most difficult time is when the water has receded. Why? Because then no one will think to help [the villagers].”
We are an unexpectedly international group: American, Singaporean, Hong Kong, Chinese, Malaysian and Thai. That morning, our motley relief team received a short briefing by Ben about potential hazards: snakes, unconfirmed rumors of crocodiles, live electrical wires, and of course the fetid, dirty water.
We ride out in a truck hauling a total of 675 bags of supplies and 1,900 bottles of water. Ben has funded all of this himself, with the help of his friends and network.
I pull on rubber boots and a safety vest and hop into Ben’s boat. It’s a hot day. The heat shimmers over the water. Submerged palm trees look absurdly short.
Ben, squinting under a baseball cap, explains that what looks like a lake is in fact a road. The transportation in the area has been choked, leaving people stranded and with no way to get to work. I ask our boatman where his house is, and he points left off into the distance. The government has not been here to help, he says.
Our boat sweeps through the front of one house, where the water is chest deep. Electrical appliances are hastily stacked in a corner, rendered useless by the water. We talk to the woman of the house. Two years ago in the devastating floods of 2011, the government reimbursed the household a mere 5,000 baht, approximately US$150. This year, who knows? No one from the government has come yet to offer assistance, she laments. She looks angry.
It’s another reminder of the inequalities revealed by natural disaster. Though then Prime Minister Yingluck made visits to flood-affected areas and the army deployed personnel, the general impression is that not enough has been done through official channels.
But others will step in.
Ben and Y.C. have been in touch daily with Poh Teck Tung, a Chinese-Thai rescue and relief organization. We meet up with them, and sirens blazing, the Poh Teck Tung team drags their blue boats to the water’s edge.
I ride out with two young men this time. Without hesitation, they jump into the water to guide our boat. It’s obvious that being on the rescue team is an important part of their lifestyle. There’s a real appeal to being on the front lines, earning Buddhist merit and genuinely helping those in need.
It’s an impulse others have acted on as well. As the day goes on, it becomes clear other aid groups have visited the village, though in less than coordinated fashion. By late afternoon, all the houses have already received supplies from various groups. I see glimpses of stashed supplies and food peeking from the buildings.
In an oddly absurd moment, a woman walks to the boat, handing us cold bottled water with genuine Thai hospitality, as we simultaneously try to offer her supplies.
Ben was right to want to show the unseen human costs of natural disasters. That’s why we’re here. And Poh Teck Tung. Others, like the Red Cross, are here too.
At least for now.