Saturday, November 25, 2006

Absolutely not a baht for people in need. Meanwhile, billions of baht are spent on idiotic projects like the latest SME / OTOP initiative.

Inundated and frustrated

Orchid growers allowed their land to be flooded to protect Bangkok, but still await any form of relief

It has been almost a month since the triumphant faces of the director-general of the Royal Irrigation Department and the Bangkok governor appearing on television upset Suchart Dokrak.

"Khun Apirak always smiles on the news, full of pride, saying that he was able to save Bangkok. How about the life of simple people like me? I was good enough to help Bangkok, but not worthy enough to receive relief from the capital," said the orchid farmer, whose life was turned upside down overnight on October 26.

The 44-year-old resident of Song Phi Nong district was sailing a wooden boat given to him by his neighbour when The Nation visited him on Friday. Three metres below the surface were some 205,000 orchid plants he and his wife Rapeeporn had carefully planted two years ago.

From being one of the province's high-profile orchid growers who generated income of more than Bt10,000 a day by exporting their blooms to Italy and India, Suchart and Rapeeporn now make about Bt50-Bt60 daily by fishing in the three-metre-deep pond where a month ago their orchids flourished.

The turning point of their life was late on the morning of October 26.

"I heard a loud noise. I turned round. It was terrifying - a huge volume of water was flooding through a broken earth dam. By late afternoon it had become like this," Rapeeporn recalled, indicating the brown waters around her. "I fainted from shock and had to spend a day in hospital."

Yesterday Suchart and about other 100 orchid growers who were affected by the flooding gathered at the office of the Thai Orchid Garden Enterprise Association in Nakhon Pathom.

Payong Kong-udomsup, president of the association, said he had called the meeting so his members could share their suffering. Information was being collected and will be reported to Agriculture Minister Thira Sutabutra and Samart Chokekhanapitak, director-general of the Irrigation Department.

"We hope the details we collect here today will be used to evaluate compensation for flood-affected people," said Payong.

Payong said at least 30 big farms in Suphan Buri, Nakhon Pathom, Ayutthaya and Nonthaburi had been completely inundated. Though the majority of his members were able to save their farms, many had to spend more than Bt1 million to do so, he added.

Suchart said he had tried to protect his farm, but failed.

As a member of the Bangtakien Tambon Administration Organisation, he was informed on October 15 by local Irrigation Department authorities that all farm areas, including his 50 rai, were part of areas that had been designated for water retention to protect Bangkok from being flooded by the huge volume of water rushing in from the North.

Before being hit by the water, irrigation officials went to his farm to take photographs, saying the pictures would be used later when calculating his compensation.

Suchart decided to assign only 40 rai, where there was a fish pond and orchards, as areas to be submerged. The remaining 10 rai was an orchid farm, an area he had to protect.

Almost Bt100,000 was then spent on building a three-metre-high earth dam to encircle the 10-rai orchid farm, in the hope that it would be strong enough to protect the valuable blooms.

"We didn't know how high we should make the dam because the irrigation authorities failed to tell us the volume of water they estimated would be diverted to our land," said Rapeeporn.

The couple soon learnt the volume of water - on October 26 after the dam burst under the pressure of floodwater. By the evening, even the three-metre-high dam was under water discharged from the Prayabunleu irrigation system.

The orchids and other assets that drowned in the murky depths were worth about Bt2 million, he said, adding, "Now it's worse as I have no way to generate income to repay the Bt3.5-million loan I took out with the SME Bank in 2003 to invest in the farm."

Suchart said he would soon ask the bank for a three-year debt moratorium.

Hope surfaced when the couple heard that Prime Minister Surayud Chulanond was to visit flood-affected people in the province on November 10, with promises of compensation.

However, relief turned to despair again when Suchart was approached by the chief of Song Phi Nong district, asking him not to report his situation to the premier, saying that Surayud already knew about it and had ordered measures to assist all victims.

No assistance has been forthcoming so far.

Suchart said he wished the Bangkok governor and the head of the Irrigation Department would show more concern for people like him, who had sacrificed their entire fortune to protect the metropolis. At least, he said, they could help him by asking the SME Bank to accept his request for a debt moratorium.

He said that since the local irrigation authorities told him about their plan to discharge water onto his land, he had never seen anyone from the department again. Nor have representatives of any state agencies - not even the Agricultural Promotion Department or district officials - visited him.

The couple still do not know when their life will return to normal, and they have no idea how long they have to keep storing the water to protect Bangkok residents.

"I would like to meet the head of the Irrigation Department and ask him when he will come take his water back. He has left it with us too long," Suchart said.