Friday, October 12, 2012

Flood-prone Thai cities in urgent need of a new urban vision

Richard Friend in the Nation (Thailand): It's that time of year again and we are anxiously watching the weather in fear of floods. The occurrence and impact of annual monsoon floods appear to be intensifying. At the height of last year's flood in the Central Plains, I entered a taxi in downtown Bangkok. The radio was airing a discussion on flooding.

For my taxi driver, the cause of the problem was obvious - "It's all about the spread of towns, housing and industrial estates. We should never have built in the floodplain areas in the Central Plains and Bangkok!"

Sometimes the most obvious explanations for problems are the most easily ignored. It does not take a great leap of the imagination to realise that filling in land that floods naturally every year, blocking natural drainage in a vast floodplain ecosystem, and clearing the natural cover of the watersheds across the Central Plains will take its toll. But it seems that this has not been reflected in policy, planning and practice.

The transformation Thailand has gone through over the last 25 years is phenomenal. You can see this from satellite images of the country over the last quarter century, showing where forest cover on the border has come to a stop.

But we must also look at where and how we have built our homes, factories, shops and roads.  By and large, we have built in rich agricultural land, digging up rice fields, and filling in areas that manage natural water flows. If you travel around Bangkok and the Central Plains, in between the roads and buildings you can clearly see the vegetation fighting back against the concrete. In between the modern buildings the land is still what it always has been - a wetland in which flooding is part of the natural annual cycle....

From October 11, 2011, a true-colour satellite image showing flooding in Ayutthaya and Pathum Thani Provinces in Central Thailand (right), compared to before the flooding (left). From NASA

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