The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Baan Mankong and Wat Khao: the community-driven programme building resilience to natural disasters in Thailand

Natalia Gaerlan visits a poor community in northern-central Thailand that has taught itself resilience in the face of recurring flooding, in part thanks to involvement in the country's very successful Baan Mankong community empowerment programme.

Natalia Gaerlan

Natalia Gaerlan

Cities: Nakhon Sawan

Topics: Housing, Emergencies and reconstruction, Participatory governance, Community organisation, Informal settlements, Flooding and storms

Two years ago during the floods of 2011 in Thailand, Wat Chom Khiri Nak Phrot (Wat Khao for short), a community in the city of Nakhon Sawan, 240 km north of Bangkok, was inundated for three months with water six to eight metres deep from the Chao Phraya River. Most homes still have visible water marks well above their second storeys, a constant reminder of the extent of the flood.

Living in a region that experiences flooding about every five years creates a reality for its people that can either defeat them or inspire them to devise solutions. Locals and officials in this community are taking matters into their own hands to prepare for the next flood. They are determined to install permanent water pumps, but at a cost of 2 million Baht (about $64,000) the local government does not have the capital to build the pump station. Instead of giving up, Wat Khao's residents have sent their request to the World Bank, and is currently closing a deal that should see funding for the pumps arrive by the end of this year.

Wat Khao residents don't wait for help. They have developed a self-reliant character, part of which comes from their joining Baan Mankong, a people-centred national government programme that enables slum communities to take control of developing their own long-term, comprehensive solutions to land use and housing. Their case demonstrates how community empowerment through organisations such as Baan Mankong can enable an urban poor community to successfully manage its own disaster responses. In addition to teaching financial and land planning skills, the programme encouraged Wat Khao residents to communicate with each other, developing trust and confidence. These characteristics enabled them to fare comparatively well during the 2011 floods.

Preparing for the flood

Due to the local government's limited resources, Wat Khao and neighbouring communities had to rely on self-organised protection measures to weather the floods. The people of Wat Khao did not become passive victims, but strategised with other local communities prior to the arrival of the floods to organise relief teams, improve their infrastructure, and set up a community-led disaster centre. They piled up sandbags and built bridges to connect neighbouring communities.

During the floods, food was prepared daily at the disaster centre and distributed to 1,115 households. Boat patrols would check on houses, shelter was provided to people who could no longer live in their homes, and jobs were found for those who temporarily lost their livelihoods. After the floods, the communities worked together to clean and repair homes and prepare damage reports for government subsidies.

The mayor of Nakhon Sawan, Jittakasem Nirojthanarat, has a supportive relationship and holds regular meetings with the communities. Throughout the 2011 floods the local government met with community leaders to help the poor prepare, adapt and recover. "There were some actions local government could  not do, but the communities were able to achieve them," says Nirojthanarat. These activities included building flood barriers with sandbags and assisting the elderly in the communities.

Prior to the floods, many homes were rebuilt through the Baan Mankong savings and loan programmes with flood-adapting measures, such as stilts or second storeys. Electrical systems were designed with two circuit breakers, one for each storey. Televisions and refrigerators were installed on elevated stands. Some households chose not to evacuate to the shelter and adapted their homes to live with the rising flood levels, including a homeowner who created an access through his roof and built a new shelter on top of his existing house. The man, who lives alone, still chooses to reside in his makeshift shelter. Other households built podiums inside their homes so that they could still safely store their clothing and food and sleep at night.

Living with resilience

Many livelihoods were disrupted, making it difficult for people to earn an income during the flood. Ararm Sree, the Wat Khao community leader, found work for community members as boat drivers, transporting people between outer communities and the city centre. Other people took to fishing or manufacturing concrete blocks in preparation for rebuilding once the floodwaters receded.

Relocation has been discussed with the communities in the past, but the people have been living here for generations and do not want to abandon their established livelihoods. The community, therefore, must be ready to live with floods. Led by Ararm, the residents prepare together evacuation and warning systems, develop community plans, and work with professionals to build flood-adapted housing. "Baan Mankong is a really effective tool to bring people together in order to manage problems together. We can now be connected to the local government in discussing not only about housing, but also about livelihood, environment, and others," says Ararm. Currently Ararm has proposed the establishment of a flood management committee, consisting of members from the local government and communities.

Community-driven programmes like Baan Mankong are implemented in poor communities throughout the world. It has been successfully implemented in over 300 cities in Thailand and is proof of the capabilities of poor communities if they are given simple guidance and an opportunity to get themselves started. Even though housing is at the centre of many community-driven programmes, the development process is holistic and empowering. Ararm Sree states that the "programme built our confidence that if we want to achieve something and we try to do it, we can achieve it."

The experience of the floods clearly shows that the wider sustainable development goals of community-driven programmes are also very successful in equipping people with the skills, resources, and connections to deal effectively with unexpected events, such as natural disasters or other climate impacts — the essence of being a resilient community.

Natalia Gaerlan is a landscape architect currently pursuing a Master of Urban Planning at Harvard.

Information for this article was gathered as part of Gaerlan's internship with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap) in 2013 with kind collaboration from the Community Organizations Development Institute (Codi), a public organisation under the Thai ministry of social development and human security.