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Hard lessons from Bangkok's floods

October 24, 2022
topics: Natural disaster
by: Jitsiree Thongnoi
located in: Thailand
tags: climate change, climate justice, flood, sea level rise, Thailand, urban planning

Bangkok’s low-income communities along inner-city canals and the river bank are threatened by rising sea levels, erratic rain patterns and inadequate urban planning, as the Thai capital struggles to stay above water.

The Daowadung Temple community - home to roughly 2,000 people on the bank of the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok - has been slightly flooded over the past few weeks. 

Every morning between 5-9 am, Bupha, a female resident in her 70's who only disclosed her first name, has to go to the market and shop for food for the day because later on the river bank, where her house - a shack - stands, will be submerged.

"My daughter comes home from work at night and my husband has to come out and fetch her because there’s all kinds of things: Snakes, vermin, lizards," Bupha told Fair Planet.

"Every year during September and October the bank is usually submerged and subsides on its own, but this year the water just lies still like it has nowhere to go."

Roughly ankle-high, the flood at Bupha’s house isn't considered severe. In 2011, when Bangkok experienced its worst flooding in decades (perhaps centuries) - an event now known as the Great Flood - the water came up to her neck, Bupha said. 

But in low-income communities like hers - where hundreds of shacks are built of wood or metal scraps, ground-level lavatories are still common and debris smash into homes of blue-collar and informal workers who live within inches of one another - flooding could spread disease and further imperil the already marginalised.

This month, as Bangkok embraces itself for a possible major flood, the city of 15 million has apparently come to terms with the calamity that might from now on not be just seasonal, but permanent.

"We might have to row a boat to watch a show at the cultural center in the future," Seri Suparathit, director of the Climate Change and Disaster Center at Rangsit University, said at a recent seminar.

The fate of Bangkok appears to be similar to that of Jakarta or Ho Chi Minh City, both of which are sinking due to the trifecta of erratic rain patterns, rising sea levels and inadequate urban planning.

WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS

In 2021, Thailand, and particularly Bangkok, experienced temperatures about half a celsius higher than average, according to Atthapong Chantanumate, director of the master plan and policy division at the Office of the National Water Resources (ONWR); the same trend, Chantanumate maintains, has been ongoing for the past 40 years.

This led to unpredictable rain patterns, with rainfall, especially in northern Thailand, becoming less frequent. But the volume of precipitation grew more intense, which resulted in disasters like flash-floods and landslides, as well as severe droughts. 

Bangkok lies in the path of danger, being located in a swamp-like terrain known as the Chao Phraya Basin, where northern and central tributaries converge and flow south before discharging at the Gulf of Thailand.

Plans are made every year to mitigate the rise of the Bangkok section of Chao Phraya in order to protect the country’s economic veins, often at the cost of farmers in the central plains who allow for water to be stored in their lands as overflowing tributaries slowly make their way out to sea.

But when sea tides rise, drainage grows slower and more difficult to manage, and Bangkok communities like the Daowadung Temple are the first to be affected.

Bangkok also relies on its network of small canals to allow the flow of water, but "Every measure is just mitigation," said Sitang Pilailar from Kasetsart University’s department of water resources engineering.

"Every sewer, every plan no longer corresponds to climate change and rising population," she told FairPlanet, adding that Bangkok’s drainage system, which was built decades ago, has not been recalibrated in time to meet current challenges.

Bangkok used to be called 'Venice of the East' due to its many irrigation canals. But gentrification saw canals dissipate, dry up and clogged by garbage and low-income communities settled along them.

In recent months, as Bangkok new's governor Chadchart Sittipunt began preparing for the seasonal flood and ordered the drainage of the sewer, trash items ranging from plastic bags and lingerie pieces to a sofa were recovered from underneath the city. 

"BANGKOK HAS BEEN SPOILED FOR TOO LONG"

In the first week of October, a light drizzle one evening that lasted a few hours was enough to bring the capital to a halt, as sewers barely contained the rain. 

At the Daowadung Temple community, water rose quickly. Puangroy Toomvijit, 70, another resident, said that if the water had broken through the sandbag barrier, she and the community's 2,000 dwellers would have faced the same fate as in 2011, when "pots, pans and mattresses were wiped away by the flood."

But Toomvijit denies there was a plan to evacuate them out, saying no officials had approached them about it.

She further said she had no knowledge about climate change, or a natural phenomenon that would bring about more severe flooding.

Toomvijit has lived in the community since 1992, and cannot imagine moving out - even though many homes are unequipped for floods. Adjacent to the community stands a high-rise condominium, which she says accidentally pumps water out onto her neighbourhood at times as it is built on higher ground.

But since at least 2014 the government has moved some communities out and compensated thousands of residents - typically following a lengthy negotiation. Plans are in place to relocate more communities, both along the canals and the Chao Phraya, but the process in expected to take decades and a significant amount of resources. The authorities estimate in 2015 that there were about 94,000 residents living along 1,100 canals in Bangkok. 

But as the Chao Phraya Dam, which is situated upstream, has reached its capacity and the UNESCO-listed historic city of Ayutthaya now partially submerged, Bangkok will be under flood risks until at least mid-October, which means canal and riverside communities will continue to be high-risk areas.

Sitang of Kasetsart University said that recovering canals and reclaiming land along the banks was only one aspect part of water planning; the big picture was that there was little awareness of climate change among Thai bureaucrats and thus no incentive to implement a long-term solution.

Although Bangkok has drainage tunnels, Sitang  pointed out, the city's water supply system is unable to quickly deliver water to the tunnel. Moreover, the drainage system that serves to transport water is operating at half the efficiency of its design. 

"There is a need for the use of data sets and artificial intelligence for warnings," Sitang said. "Bangkok needs to manage itself efficiently because it has been spoiled by other provinces in the central plain that hold water to save the capital.

"It cannot be the only place that is safe from flooding from now on."

Image by Jitsiree Thongnoi.

Article written by:
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Jitsiree Thongnoi
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Thailand
Ankle-high, the flood at Bupha’s house cannot be considered severe.
Ankle-high, the flood at Bupha’s house cannot be considered severe.
© Jitsiree Thongnoi
As Bangkok embraces itself for a possible major flood, the city of 15 million is coming to terms with the fact that the calamity might not be just seasonal, but permanent.
As Bangkok embraces itself for a possible major flood, the city of 15 million is coming to terms with the fact that the calamity might not be just seasonal, but permanent.
© Jitsiree Thongnoi
Puangroy Toomvijit.
Puangroy Toomvijit.
© Jitsiree Thongnoi
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