What would you do if you returned to your house three months after a flood only to find it in ruins, damaged beyond repair, a slush of garbage and mud obscuring any hint of a floor? This is what many flood victims in Ubon Ratchathani province encountered. They need to stay in their homes but first they need to eat. Meanwhile relief from the government is slow and insufficient. What are they to do? Songwut Jullanan from Ubon Ratchathani reports.

Photos and story by Songwut Jullanan

“I volunteer to do everything. I’m a village health volunteer, community police officer, and civil defense volunteer. I like to help people. But I didn’t know what to do when I became a victim,” says Somkit Kaewlai, a resident of Ketkaew community in Ubon Ratchathani’s Warin Chamrap district.

When Somkit returned home after relocating to a shelter for flood victims in September 2022, what she saw on the first day was the walls of her house eroded by water, broken furniture, and garbage all over the place. 

“Everything was damaged – our clothes, all our appliances. There was litter and glass, water hyacinth, scraps of wood, and plastic. There was evidence of it [the mess] on the second floor that I just cleaned up. I don’t have money to pay someone to help me. I don’t even have the money to buy food, so I eat Mama instant noodles and canned fish,” she says, her voice shaking.

Traces of the flood still visible in Somkit Kaewlai’s house in Warin Chamrap

Somkit is a village health volunteer, and even though the income she earns from being a volunteer and the elderly allowance she receives for those over 60 years of age helps her survive, it’s not enough to fix the damages from the flood, especially as it happens year in and year out. 

“It floods here every year because it’s in a low-lying area, like a pond. The roads surrounding the area were raised up almost a meter,” says Sunan Kaewsena, Ketkaew’s community leader. “At the time, the water levels in rivers in other communities were seven meters when it flooded, but here it was 5.8 meters.”

Sunan Kaewsena, leader of Ketkaew community, sits in front of the washed out first floor of his house

The repeated flooding of the community severely affects the income of residents. Many work as day laborers in agriculture, as general contractors, and scrap collectors, but they were unable to work during the floods.

Meanwhile, life in the shelter was difficult. People had to stay with people from other communities and there were concerns about safety, since their makeshift shelter was beside the road where there was constant traffic.

Although most community members have returned to clean up and fix their houses, they are still facing problems, despite the flood waters retreating.

Receding flood waters reveal trash piles

Often recurring floods change the status of their in-house possessions and wealth into trash. But beyond that, community members have to contend with the large amount of garbage that flowed in with floods.

Scrap wood and plastic still cluttered around homes in Ketkaew

“Garbage has caused trouble for us. It’s smelly,” says Somkit while walking toward a pile of garbage in front of her house. “When the water receded initially, there was so much garbage. Water hyacinth, plastic, dead trees, beds, and wardrobes came with the water.” 

“This is how it looks even after I’ve already cleaned everything up,” she says, pointing towards the still-apparent garbage surrounding her. 

“Rotten garbage can be used to make compost, but you can’t do that with large items,” she adds. “There are so many water hyacinths and nowhere to put them. If you put them in the soil, the soil will be dense. It’s so hard to manage and there’s no way to bury them into the soil without using a vehicle.” 

Ketkaew isn’t the only community facing piles of garbage that floated in with the flood. Nearby communities are facing the same issues. 

Srinuan Khongsibut, a resident of Ta Ko Pai community, says she was inundated by the garbage left behind by the flood. Although the local government has cleaned up some of it, a large amount of garbage is still stuck in trees, branches, and other areas in communities. The garbage is a burden for victims.

Scrap wood and plastic remaining in Ta Ko Pai community in Ubon

“Garbage comes with the water and it gets stuck in trees in the forest,” Srinuan says. “When the water recedes, it still remains in villages. There’s all sorts of things from appliances and bags. They come with the floods.”

Little relief

The strong flow of water has damaged many houses alongside the banks, leaving little behind. Ketkaew and Ta Ko Pai communities endured more than three months of flooding from September to November. A large number of houses were damaged. 

With the loss of income during the flooding, victims are hoping for financial relief from the government. But residents from both communities say the relief is “slow” and “unreasonable.”

What remains of some houses in Ta Ko Pai community in Warin Chamrap district

In November, the cabinet approved a relief budget of over seven billion baht for flood victims. Those whose houses had been flooded for a month would be eligible for 5,000 baht compensation per household, and 6,000 baht for households that had been flooded for two months. Residents of houses flooded for three months were to be eligible for 7,000 baht compensation per household. 

Somkit says she paid tens of thousands of baht to fix her house during the 2019 floods, but received only a few thousand of baht in compensation. 

Sunan remarks that it sometimes depends on luck.

“In 2019, the government gave out 2,000 baht of compensation,” he says. “This year they said they would give out 9,000 baht for those whose houses have been flooded for three months.”

But that level of compensation is far from enough. “Money needs to be used to buy food first,” Somkit says, with little left to actually rebuild. “I still don’t know what to do with my life this year,” she says with resignation.

Three months of flood: The second floor of Somkit’s house

“Right now we’re living with what we have and waiting for government relief. But it’s not always fair,” Somkit says. 

“In 2019, they estimated that we would get 2,000-3,000 baht each, but most of it was spent on fixing the house. So it just depends on your luck.” Sunan says.

Srinuan of Ta Ko Pai community says that after residents in her community returned home following the flood, the houses couldn’t be fixed because they had to wait for government officials to assess the damage and set the rate of relief money.

“Relief has been slow, but you can’t stay in the house if it’s not fixed because zinc [roofs] get rusty,” she says. “If it’s not fixed, we can’t stay. But if we get it fixed, they don’t see the damage that had been done.”

“So what can we do? We have to fix it in order to live there.”

Some residents of Ketkaew and Ta Ko Pai communities have now returned home to clean up and fix their houses. Meanwhile, some victims are still sleeping in tents beside the road while waiting for compensation from the government. 

Waiting for the day they can return home. But they don’t know when that day will arrive.

  • Read in Thai version here

Songwut Jullanan is a citizen reporter in Journalism that Builds Bridges 2022