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Twitter Aids Thai Flood Victims

Although much of Southeast Asia's major peninsula is flooded, media have concentrated on the region's prime city: Bangkok. The Thai authorities have gone to great lengths to protect central Bangkok, although it's still not certain if the CBD will remain dry or if the patchwork of canals/sewers/sluice gates/sandbags will yield to water-pressure.

It's important to remember that despite the media focus on Bangkok, other areas of Thailand and neighboring countries including Cambodia and Vietnam are suffering from flooding as well. Although globalization is now accepted, when Thailand's first industrial estate was constructed in a northern Bangkok suburb in 1971, there was no other suitable destination in the immediate region. Industrial firms, primarily Japanese, continued to build industrial estates in the 70s and 80s from Bangkok north to Ayutthaya, training Thai workers in high-tech manufacturing.

Regrettably, these estates (which comprise thousands of factories) are now submerged under a stagnant meters-deep swamp.

It's a tragic circumstance that's affected global supply chains. Hard-disk drive prices worldwide jumped 20-30% as a direct result of the Thai flooding. Supply chains were so badly disrupted that Japan granted six-month visas to several thousand Thai workers--to keep their factories in Japan operating at full capacity as lack of a unique part can stop an entire assembly line. While this gesture represents enlightened self-interest on the part of the Japanese government, it also provides some Thai workers with work and income they wouldn't otherwise have--a lifeline to their families in the flood zone.

Although Japan has rebuilt some of the factories damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami within three months, Thai authorities haven't demonstrated such unified competence--rather, the reverse. The new Prime Minister and the Governor of Bangkok are at odds, and some residents of flooded areas have taken matters into their own hands and destroyed flood-prevention defenses, even using sledgehammers in one instance. Rule-by-sledgehammer hasn't drained the factories though, and all stakeholders in these facilities anxiously await the moment when they can inspect the damage. As to when that might be is anybody's guess.

Given the widespread perception that information from the authorities isn't trustworthy, Thais have naturally turned to microblogs and social media (primarily Twitter) for timely information on the floodwaters. The Twitter feeds from #bkkflood and #thaiflood are more trusted than the authorities. They have the added benefit of crowdsourcing: people tweet from specific locations with real-time conditions.

I can't help but think of the "Arab Spring" and how microblogging was lauded as a liberating influence in removing oppressive regimes from power. That it was, but as the Thai floods are proving, it can be so much more.

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