Kritsada Rotcharatch shows a photo of his inundated neighborhood in Sai Noi.

The D.I.Y. Disaster Plan

Could your neighborhood improvise its own disaster response?

Sai Noi is where booming New Bangkok collides with the rural customs and lagging economic growth of Old Thailand. In feel, it is neither urban nor rural. Instead, it’s a mishmash of the two, with rice fields and winding village lanes abutting the strip malls and multi-million-dollar commuter villas of Bangkok’s ever-expanding urban sprawl. It was areas like these, on the city’s north side, that were hit hardest by the 2011 flood that devastated the city. In part, Sai Noi bore the brunt for geographic reasons, but also because the authorities decided to sacrifice it, releasing water into suburban areas in order to staunch the flooding in central Bangkok.

A child waits in the shade while workers harvest nearby in Sai Noi. These fields were inundated during the flood in 2011.

Cooperation came naturally to the residents of Sai Noi, partly because of a shared identity: Their background as migrants from rural northern Thailand. In these regions, in particular the hardscrabble Isan area in the northeast, flooding is common and the people know how to deal with it. The residents of Sai Noi brought that knowledge with them to Bangkok.

“I experienced my first flood when I was four years old,” Vichain Kongsub says. “People in the countryside are better prepared. We had boats and built our houses on stilts.”

What happened in Sai Noi says a lot about the power of social networks and informal systems in moments of urban crisis. Left with little official help, residents here — along with hundreds of thousands of people in other flood-struck parts of Bangkok — sprang into action. They quickly improvised a series of informal networks, and repurposed existing ones, to perform the vital tasks normally carried out by the government in emergencies. People with no training and few resources built barriers and monitored flood levels, delivered food and drinking water, evacuated residents trapped in their homes, provided medical services to the sick and injured, and policed their neighborhoods for looters. And when the water receded, these networks shifted focus and led a localized cleanup and rebuilding effort that helped the city rebound.

Vichain Kongsub, the elected chief of his village in Sai Noi. He and the local residents’ committee quickly improvised a plan when it became clear the flood would reach their area.

But there was more to it than that. Although they hadn’t come from the same province and didn’t know each other when they arrived, the residents shared a cultural sensibility that, when they found themselves in unfamiliar urban surroundings, brought them together as a community. “It’s very normal for us to cooperate like this. It’s instinct,” says Kritsada, echoing a sentiment I heard from a range of Thais involved in relief networks, including those who’ve spent their entire lives in cities. Sai Noi’s flood network now lies dormant. But when the next disaster comes, the community will re-establish it quickly. “Next time,” Vichain says, “we will be ready.”

Want more? Read the full longform article here and learn how other cities are training and equipping communities to plug into official government disaster response plans.


This story is part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Informal City Dialogues, a year-long collaboration with Next City exploring stories and insights from six rapidly urbanizing cities around the world.