What Bangkok must do urgently to avoid sinking

Will be sunk unless we refloat Chao Phraya 2 project

I feel sorry for Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra. Each time Bangkok floods, he is criticised. Some want him sacked using Article 44 of the interim constitution. The prime minister is right in refusing to heed their calls: An elected governor’s fate should depend on the next vote. It is also inappropriate for critics to point out that the previous government was elected. There is a difference.

The current Bangkok governor is not tainted by corruption or abuse of power. He could not stay in the position otherwise.

Before deciding who is to blame now, we should cast a glance back at recent history. Half a century ago we had a capital city drained by peaceful canals. It was unique and beautiful. Travellers called it the Venice of the East.

So what did we do with this gift from nature? We filled it with concrete, highways and millions of cars. We have turned what remained of our “Venice” into a clogged network of filthy channels, churned by deafening long-tail boats. Today, much like the fringes of our national highways, our khlongs are a dumping ground. Anybody unfortunate enough to fall into one becomes a hospital emergency.

That is not all.

We also inherited one of Asia’s richest expanses of virgin forest. It is tragic that we have already managed to destroy almost half of this. The monsoon rain which once nourished millions of trees now flows over stark denuded hillsides. When it arrives here in Bangkok, it is often not welcome.

Is it any wonder we have a flooding problem? Is the governor really to blame?

In more recent times, politicians were to blame for the flooding of Bangkok’s eastern suburbs – something the public might not know.

Because it was low-lying and flood prone, no building was allowed in this area of the capital. Land was thus cheap. Unscrupulous businessmen, backed by rogue politicians, exploited it. Housing estates and factories sprouted. Officials were told to change the zoning status from flood-ways into residencies. Little wonder that these areas are now normally under water after heavy rain.

To secure votes from land encroachers the same politicians told officials to turn a blind eye. Temporary shelters appeared on canal banks. Through corruption, they turned into permanent fixtures. They enjoyed official house registration, electricity and tap water. Besides littering and clogging the canals, the encroachers also prevented the city authority from dredging the waterways.

Another factor is the Chao Phraya Dam, completed in 1957 to control the water supply to the farmland across the rich Central Plains. The dam collects the confluence of four northern rivers at Nakhon Sawan – the Ping, the Wang, the Yom and the Nan – which merge to become the Chao Phraya River.

The downstream riverbanks were reinforced at huge cost with 2- metre high levees from Chai Nat to Patum Thani. Before this, beneficial annual river overflows created fertile surrounding land. The levees now prevent this. As a result, water reaches Bangkok at the beginning of the rainy season, rather than the end, as previously.

When I was in the government service, as director of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s Policy and Planning Division, I worked closely with foreign experts in flood prevention sponsored by the governments of the Netherlands, Japan and Austria.

After studies were completed we proposed a scheme in 1985 titled: “Integrated plans to save Bangkok from Swamp Fever”.

This comprised three aspects.

First, we proposed a “polder system” – using a Dutch model for the to cover 89 square kilometres of the city using pumps, floodgates and dykes. The cost of the project was Bt3 billion.

Second, we suggested that the eastern suburbs of Bangkok covering 450 square kilometres employ a combination of land reclamation and additional city planning under a model drawn up by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The project cost was Bt6 billion.

Third was an Austrian model to the west of Thonburi. The plan was to dig a canal parallel to the Chao Phraya River. This would help equalise water levels. It would not only prevent Thonburi flooding, it would also drain hundreds of acres which could be used for other purposes. The study also had the advantage of encouraging city expansion towards higher ground on the west bank of the river. The cost was Bt20 billion.

We also suggested that the government discourage – and even ban – construction of more high-rise buildings in the city. An example at that time was the Royal Army Academy, which moved from Bangkok to Nakhon Nayok in 1986.

Other recommendations included rigorous enforcement of the building code, compulsory tax-deductible insurance to alleviate suffering by flood victims, and a ban on using artesian wells.

The first and second proposals were accepted and implemented by the city authority. The third proposal, “Chao Phraya 2”, was submitted to the government for approval as it involved foreign loans and needed government guarantees. Unfortunately the Cabinet turned this down. If the BMA administrators had belonged to the same party as the government, it would have passed.

One other solution was to move the entire capital to higher ground, leaving Bangkok to be swallowed up by the water table. Outlandish as it sounded then, that alarming scenario now creeps nearer. A combination of global warming, deforestation, the gradual sinking of the city and inadequate flood prevention measures will eventually seal our fate.

The longer we do nothing, the worse it will be. In a few decades, Bangkok risks being submerged. That vision is unthinkable.

If the present government is interested in a long-term solution to Bangkok flooding, it should revive the Chao Phraya 2 Project.

The feasibility study of this is in the hands of BMA. The canal would run parallel to Chao Phraya River from Nonthaburi’s Pak Kret district to Pom Prajul in Samut Prakan. It would hold huge amounts of water and discharge it into the sea without reaching Bangkok. Excess water in Bangkok could also be discharged into the canal. Chao Phraya 2 could also store water for sale to the Metropolitan Waterworks Authority in summer when river water is insufficient. The excavated alluvial soil would also have a substantial value.

Both banks of the diversion canal could be developed as a promenade, with hotels, exhibition centres etc, and create a new attraction.

If we do nothing, I fear we will be sunk.