As millions of urbanites living a modern lifestyle fear that torrents of floodwater will rage through Thailand’s capital, some in enclaves of a bygone era watch the rising waters with hardly a worry — they live in old-fashioned houses perched on stilts, with boats rather than cars parked outside.
“No problem for them. They’ll be safe,” said boatman Thongrat Sasai, plying his craft along some of the remaining canals that once crisscrossed Bangkok, earning it the “Venice of the East” moniker.
Like most of monsoon-swept Asia, the city and its environs have experienced periodic floods since it was founded more than two centuries ago, but recent decades have witnessed dramatic changes — from intense urbanization to rising waters blamed on climate change — that are turning once burdensome, but bearable events into national crises.
“In a sense, traditional society had an easier coexistence with water and flooding,” said Aslam Perawaiz, an expert at the Bangkok-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Center.
“Now, with such rapid development, there’s a much bigger problem,” he added.
Across Asia, areas of high population density are also those most prone to flooding and other water-related disasters, according to an analysis of recent UN maps. When overlaid, the maps show such convergence in a wide arc from Pakistan and India, across Southeast Asia, to China, the Philippines and Indonesia.
This is not mere bad luck. Historically, agrarian societies settled in the continent’s great river basins, including the Ganges in India, the Mekong in Southeast Asia and the Chao Phraya in Bangkok. The gift of the rivers was fertile land, but it came at the price of almost annual flooding during the monsoon rains.
By providing sufficient food for growing populations, these rice bowls in turn spurred the rise of some of Asia’s largest cities, from Bangkok to Kolkata, India. The concentration of national resources and wealth means even smaller disasters can have a big impact.
Severe flooding this year has killed more than 1,000 people across Asia and economic losses are running in the tens of billions of US dollars.
Thailand, suffering its worst flooding in 50 years, offers a prime example of the perils of centralization and man’s fractured bonds to the natural environment. Floodwater has spilled into outlying parts of Bangkok and the government is scrambling to try to prevent the inundation of the city center.
The basin of the Chao Phraya, the River of Kings, and its headwaters in the north is home to 40 percent of the country’s 66 millon people. Bangkok is Thailand’s industrial, financial, transportation and cultural heart, contributing more than 65 percent of its GDP.
Growth, outward and upward, has been stunning. Bangkok’s greater metropolitan area now covers more than 7,700km2 and it continues to gnaw away at a surrounding countryside that once acted as a natural drain for water from northern mountain watersheds — themselves shedding more water because of widespread deforestation.
Highways, suburban malls and industrial parks, many now swamped and sustaining crippling losses, create dangerous buildups of water or divert it into populated areas, rather than along traditional paths toward the Gulf of Thailand.
In Bangkok itself, streets where today’s middle-aged residents used to play with water buffaloes as children are studded with towering, cheek-by-jowl condominiums and office blocks. The ratios of green space to population and area are among the lowest of any major city in the world.