This paper revisits the 2011 Great Flood in central Thailand to answer one of the hotly debated questions at the time “Could the operation decisions of the flood control structures substantially mitigate the flood impacts in the downstream areas?”. Using a numerical modeling approach, we develop a hypothesis such that the two upstream dam reservoirs: Bhumibol and Sirikit had more accurately forecasted the typhoon-triggered abnormal rainfall volumes and released more water earlier to save the storage capacity via 17 different scenarios or alternative operation schemes. We subsequently quantify the potential improvements, or reduced flood impacts in the downstream catchments, solely by changing the operation schemes of these two dam reservoirs, with all other conditions remaining unchanged. We observed that changing the operation schemes could have reduced only the flood depth while offering very limited improvements in terms of inundated areas for the lower Chao Phraya River Basin. Among 17 scenarios simulated, the inundated areas could have been reduced at most by 3.68%. This result justifies the limited role of these mega structures in the upstream during the disaster on one hand, while pointing to the necessity of handling local rainfall differently on the other. The paper expands the discussion into how the government of Thailand has drawn the lessons from the 2011 flood to better prepare themselves against the lurking flood risk in 2021, also triggered by tropical cyclones. The highlighted initiatives, both technical and institutional, could have provided important references for the large river catchment managers in Southeast Asia and with implications of our method beyond the present application region.
Flood; Natural hazards; Reservoir operations; Hydrodynamic simulations; Chao phraya river; Southeast Asia