Thailand’s floods and your next computer

Rarely do we come across news stories so obviously geographic as this report in today’s New York Times about the floods in Thailand. The story cuts across and connects many of the modules available in our department: on climate change, on hazards, hydrology, development, globalization, and economic geography.

It’s about the impact of floods in the low-lying areas around Bangkok and how many of the area’s most important factories, run by electronics companies such as Western Digital and auto-mobile producers such as Toyota, are now under water — accessible only by jet ski and inundated with fish.

The article tells us that, a ‘large share of the industrial growth in Thailand has occurred on the flood plain north of Bangkok. Rice paddies were paved over to make way for factories, suburban housing and shopping malls, blocking the natural path and absorption of water during the monsoon season.’  Looking from above, you can see for yourself here what some of this development looks like. Note the golf courses close to the industrial areas; the juxtaposition of high-tech factory with rice paddy; what look like new housing projects within shouting distance of what look like river-side corrugated-iron shacks; etc.

These developments reflect Thailand’s new place in the world. As the article notes, the ‘image of Thailand as a land of temples, beaches and smiles’ needs to be seen in the light of ‘Thailand’s industrialization and the extent to which two global industries, computers and cars, rely on components made here.’  There has been a sizeable wave of foreign direct investment, especially after 1997 when ‘hot money’ in property speculation helped create the Asian financial crisis [click here for a table showing Thailand’s FDI growth since the mid-1980s] [see discussion on Thailand from an earlier post on this blog].

Thailand has become a player in the globalized world and this means that, when it rains in Thailand, people across the world need to take note.  As the report points out, the floods are causing supply-chain problems. It has ‘forced Toyota to slow production in factories in Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, North America, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Africa and Vietnam.’ Workers in the wider region (and beyond) are facing up to losing some wages. And if you’re looking to buy a new computer, you might also notice the Thai floods because your purchase might be just that tiny wee bit more expensive given that hard disk supplies are now limited, which means computer assemblers such as Dell or Lenovo will be paying higher prices.

Of course, just as the article points out, the flooding  is ‘the second reminder this year of the vulnerability of global supply chains, coming just a few months after the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan and shut down facilities that produce crucial car electronic components’. The Thai flooding therefore demonstrates how oddly interconnected, and in some senses dangerously interdependent, the world has become.

Will the Thai state work out a way to militate against future floods; will it play its (essential) part in reducing the dangers associated with global interconnectedness? It’s certainly down to them to improve the infrastructure — after all, this is one of the reasons globalization ‘works’ for footloose producers:  they can threaten to leave if the state doesn’t  upgrade drainage systems or build new canals [note the reference to investors looking at Indonesia and then the quote towards the end of the article: ‘Thailand will be able to get away with this once — but not twice’]. Will the Thai state be up to the task?  Can floods such as these be prevented? If they are a result of climate change, as claimed by Thailand’s science and technology minister, can the state ever do enough?

Alistair Fraser

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