Wet season strain shows it’s time to move Bangkok, but money talks louder (video)

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The onset of the wet season in Bangkok brings with it not just a respite from the hot weather that proceeds it, but also serves as a poignant reminder of how strained this city of 12 million people is.

Bangkok is rapidly reaching its use by date Al Jazeera English

Originally founded as the capital of Thailand, then named Siam, in 1782 by King Phutthayotfa Chulalok (Rama I) Bangkok is built on swampland, its highest elevation a mere 1.5 metres (5ft) above sea level.

Although a network of large and small canals (khlongs) historically channelled water from the 372 kilometre (about 231 mile) long Chao Phraya River that divides Bangkok from the former capital of Thonbury on the river’s western bank, rapid urbanisation and rampant corruption has seen much of the natural drainage capacity reduced.

With no formal zoning regulations until 1992, a drainage system that sits below sea-level, no effective mass transit network, and a mere 8 per cent of its 1,568.7 sq.km (605.7 sq.mi) area devoted to road use (compared to 20–30 per cent in most Western cities) the annual Bangkok wet season causes the city to literally grind to a halt.

Though the city has built a complex network of elevated tollways to try and cope with its burgeoning growth, some 7.384 million vehicles taking to the city’s roads daily sees its already infamous traffic become a giant car park when the wet season arrives, costing industry and businesses millions of baht in lost productivity, absent or late employees, and excessive transportation times.

Bangkok is rapidly reaching its use by date

Empty shelves in a Bangkok supermarket in October 2011 as people brace for floods
Empty shelves in a Bangkok supermarket in October 2011 as people brace for floods John Le Fevre

Bangkok narrowly  jumped the shark in 2011 when an estimated two billion cubic meters (12 trillion litres / 3.17 billion gallons) of water from months of rain in Thailand’s central and northern provinces threatened to pour through the city on its way to the Gulf of Thailand a mere 25 kilometres (16 mi) away, However, the writing is on the board – Bangkok is rapidly reaching its use by date.

While the events of 2011 that saw industry suffer losses of an estimated US$12 billion might fall into the category of a once in every 50 or 100 years event, greater losses are set to occur. It is forecast that Bangkok will become the 21st century equivalent of Atlantis by 2100, with much of the city forecast to be under water as early as 2025.

Listed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as one of the worlds 13 largest 20 cities at risk of being inundated in coming decades due to climate change, Krung Thep as it is simply referred to in Thai, is not only at risk of rising sea levels, it is also slowly but consistently sinking.

According to the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA) Bangkok is sinking at up to 3cm (1.18 inches) a year, while at the same time a 2010 Joint Thailand-Europe Research Study (JTERS) found that water levels in the Gulf of Thailand are rising at up to 0.4 cm (0.16inch) per year.

Fearful of scaring off investors who continue to develop an ever increasing number of high-rise condominium developments and shopping malls, successive Thailand governments have ignored the long term threat issued by numerous experts and are instead fixated on developing a multi-billion series of huge dikes along the Gulf of Thailand.

Thai gulf rising at rapid rate

However, in addition to noting a sea level rise in the Gulf of Thailand faster than the world average, the 2010 JTERS study also found that the tectonic plate is falling at an estimated rate of about 10mm (0.39 inch) per year. This would mean that any dike system would need to be constantly heightened or eventually sink below the oceans surface.

Thailand’s portable floating toilet for flood victims
Thailand’s portable floating toilet for flood victims John Le Fevre

While an expensive dike might delay the inevitable it will have no affect on the city’s strained infrastructure with planned and current expansions to the BTS Skytrain and the underground MRT expected to barely meet with the commuter demand of today, let alone in five years time.

At the same time, with Bangkok land prices around US$8,000 per sq.metre ($743 per sq.ft) the cost of any expansion to the city’s road network is certain to be an expensive exercise before the first metre of asphalt is even laid.

While better traffic management, the adoption of an odds and evens registration system, or even a permit system similar to that utilised in Singapore might see a drop in vehicular traffic, particular in the main business district, Bangkok’s 16,000+ buses, minibuses, songthaews, and 180,000 taxi, cars, motorcycle taxis, and tuk-tuks strain to meet peak demand now, let alone if hundreds of thousands of former car and motorcycle drivers are forced to seek alternate commute methods.

Time to relocate, but money talks louder

One medium term solution is the relocation of the central government and its various agencies from Bangkok to a new, less flood-prone location based on more sturdy foundations in a similar manner to the former military government of Myanmar (then named Burma) did with the development of Naypyidaw.

Built from scratch on a greenfield site in central Myanmar starting in 2002, Naypyidaw is today home to some 1.2 million predominantly government workers, the first of who began moving there just three years after construction commenced.

In addition to removing hundreds of thousands of government employees and their families, the development of a new administrative center would also attract tens of thousands of workers further alleviating the strain on Bangkok’s already stressed infrastructure.

In Thailand, bracing for floods comes with laying bricks, sandbags
In Thailand, bracing for floods comes with laying bricks, sandbags John Le Fevre

Correctly planned and implemented the development of a new administrative centre away from the flood plains of Bangkok will better prepare Thailand for the challenges of the future and help ease the strain on the current capital’s already stressed roads, public transport, education, healthcare, and drainage systems.

However, with government more focused on populist policies that will see it re-elected, along with the message such a decision would send to Bangkok investors and developers — in 2010 the greater Bangkok metropolitan area contributed 29.1 per cent to the nations GDP with an economic output of $98.34 billion — and it is difficult to imagine such a policy finding favour in a country with a reputation for money being able to make almost any problem go away.

Until a forward looking national government is prepared to take such a difficult decision Bangkokians will need to take in their stride the annual Bangkok wet season and its accompanying flooded streets, over crowded transit systems, backed-up roadways, and taxi’s which see falling rain as a signal to hoist the Jolly Roger to extort ridiculous sums from wage and salary earners simply trying to get home, and continuing the practice of leaving people standing in torrential rain because the passenger’s destination is not somewhere the taxi driver wants to go.



Feature video Universal Traveller






An earlier version of this story was published in The Establishment Post, October 2010 as Bangkok Wet Season Highlights the City’s Strain


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John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 40 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and editor.

He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.

He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.

In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.

Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.

In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

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