Necessary sacrifice? : Khon Kaen urban poor suffer fallout from city flood control

It’s been over a month now since the Mitraphap Community along Khon Kaen railway was confronted with major loss after their homes were submerged in meter-high water. The physical and psychological damage, though, remains – and has been overlooked by the government. Community members ask if the flash flood they’re forced to face is only seen as a necessary sacrifice for the city residents and the province’s economic hub to be spared from.

Story and photographs by Wannisa Saen-in

Old, water-sogged mattresses are left scattered around Khon Kean’s Mittraphap community. They might not be worth much, they might be the last valuable belonging of families who earn barely enough to make ends meet.

Phissamai Klinprasert has tried to salvage her mattress that had been submerged in the flood. She’s put it out to dry in the sun, not knowing when she’ll be able to bring it back in.

“I think I’ll have to throw it away. It can’t be used anymore,” she says. 

When she first moved into the community 30 years ago, Phissamai says there wasn’t any flooding. “When it rained, the water would drain naturally,” she says. But then Central Mall was built, along with a flood barrier to keep the mall dry. It was after that, she says, “it started to flood. After just a little rain, it would flood.”

Next to the community is a giant wall standing between it and the mall. Nearby, there is a small canal that distributes the overflow from Nong Kot lake to various areas. When the water can’t drain, it overflows into low-lying residential areas.

After a heavy rainfall in late September this year, 61-year-old Phissamai and over 100 households in the Mittraphap community fell victim to flooding.

Inundated by more than meter-high water for more than ten days, the community’s. homes, cars, motorbikes were damaged. The losses for these hard-pressed families were immeasurable.

Phissamai Klinprasert, a Mittraphap community resident, points at a water mark as high as her waist inside her home.

Phissamai reflects for a moment when explaining what happened to her home and community when they were flooded.

Flash flood

Phissamai says the water rose so fast she didn’t have time to prepare. She left home with what she could carry and took shelter on higher ground, along the side of the railroad tracks.

The shelter where Phissamai and her neighbors stayed during the flood. The Khon Kaen City municipal office later made it into a temporary shelter.

Phissamai shows photos recording painful memories during the flood on her tablet.

Living alone in damaged home

After the water subsided, Phissamai returned to see her one-storey house. Although she doesn’t own a lot of things, all of the things she couldn’t move out were damaged beyond repair. In her bedroom, the mattress and the wooden bedframe were submerged so long that the frame has become fragile.

The wooden floor was in a similarly bad condition. Phissamai could no longer sleep in her bedroom. She set up a mosquito net in the middle of her house — a makeshift bedroom that might well turn into a permanent one.

“I live alone so I couldn’t move things in time,” she recalls what happened that day.

Phissamai suffers from seven chronic diseases and is disabled. Her only income is the allowance of 1,000 baht she gets from the government.

“I haven’t received any flood compensation from the government,” she says, looking hopeless. “I don’t expect I will ever get any but I’ll save up on my 1,000-baht disability allowance, and the 600-baht old-age allowance to fix my home.”

Phissamai has to sleep outside her bedroom after it was damaged by the flood.

No space in nearby shelter centers

A little further away lives an old couple. Landorn Klinprasert, 61, and her husband, Sompong Phaokanha, 59, who were also affected by the flood.

“The current was strong. Our belongings were floating all over the ground floor that day. We couldn’t move things in time and our TV and fan were all destroyed,” Landorn recalls.

After the flash flood, Landorn and Sompong didn’t go to the higher-up railroad tracks like other neighbors because there was not enough space under the shelter tents. They decided to stay on the second floor of their house. They’ve received some aid from government agencies, such as ready-made food, drinking water, and other necessities.

“Although the government gave us some food, they didn’t come to look at the condition of our house,” the couple says. “After the flood subsided, we cleaned the house so it looks a bit better.”

Landorn and Sompong stand in front of their flood-damaged home after cleaning up.

“Can’t afford to fix it”

Landorn says they don’t have any money to fix their home, as the family’s only income is from her husband who works as a motorcycle taxi driver. Their living situation is now even worse.

“We can’t even use the bathroom now. We can’t afford to fix it. There’s still no compensation money,” Landorn says bitterly. “Now it’s very difficult. We have to use the bathroom at a gas station.”

Landorn and Sompong’s bathroom damaged by the flood. They now use the bathroom at a gas station. 

Landorn in her kitchen after the flood.

Agony of a bed-ridden patients

The biggest flood in a decade that’s ravaged the Mittraphap community didn’t only affect these two families. A number of bed-ridden patients living here weren’t able to move away when the flood happened.

Thepthai Wannoi, 20, says his 72-year-old grandmother Khamwieng Srijuang suffers from high-blood pressure. She also can’t speak or walk.

The grandmother of Thepthai Wannoi who suffers from high-blood pressure. (Left)

The day the community started to flood, Thepthai says that his grandmother’s condition worsened because she ran out of medicine and she needed to be taken to a hospital. The move was arduous.

“Normally it won’t flood if it just rains. But the rain that day was a downpour and it got flooded,” Thepthai says. “I learned later that it was because the municipal office released the excess water. Although our home was lifted higher after the big flood in 2011, it was flooded again.”

This is a collective experience among the Mittraphap residents. Over a month has passed after the flood, but no one has received any compensation from the government.

Thepthai Wannoi sits in front of his house, where the ground remains soaked.

Information from a report from a public hearing held by the State Railway of Thailand says that the Khon Kaen railroad community was formed around 1960. The railway authority allowed laborers who transported firewood to fuel cargo trains at the Khon Kaen Junction to set up temporary camps to relieve them of the burdens of their commute. 

Six decades later, some families still lack access to public utilities. Thepthai cannot remember his home ever having electricity.

Khamwieng’s makeshift bed after the flood subsided. The house’s wooden floor is wobbly and full of gaps.

The flood severely damaged the house’s structure and the family’s possessions and appliances. Their only source of income is from Thepthai, who works only once or twice a week. It may not be enough to make up for the losses of their family.

“I just want the government to help fix our house and give our family some compensation for the damage,” the 20-year-old says with little hope.

Despite being in the heart of the city, located just behind a major mall, Mittraphap community residents have yet to see any substantial support from government agencies despite more than a month passing by after the flood. Their only hope is for the government to see them as equal citizens who are entitled to compensation for extensive damages they did not cause.

UPDATE: Residents of the community, since the first publication of this story on XX Sept. 2022, report that XXXX [has the government provided aid in the past two months?]

Wannasi Saen-in is a participant in the Journalism that Builds Bridges project.

Mittraphap community after the flood subsided.

The waterway, a so-called “flood barrier,” runs directly into the Mittraphap community, just next to one of Khon Kaen’s biggest malls.

The elevated railroad towering over Mittraphap community.

Mittraphap community where development has not reached.

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