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Time to Move Bangkok?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
November 9, 2011

Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra gestures to residents during her visit to a flooded area at Don Muang district in Bangkok.

Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra gestures to residents during her visit to a flooded area at Don Muang district in Bangkok (Chaiwat Subprasom/Courtesy Reuters).

The flooding in Bangkok shows little sign of getting better, and its impact on Thailand’s economy and the global supply chain of many computer and automotive components has yet to be fully tallied. Japanese companies in particular have made enormous investments in Thailand and have been particularly hard hit by the flooding, but all computer disk drive makers and many car manufacturers have been affected. People are stranded throughout Bangkok, the government’s messages are still confusing and hard to understand, and the divisions in Thai political society have prevented the type of unity in the political system that should be necessary at such a time of crisis. In addition, diseases carried by the fetid water are beginning to be a problem in Bangkok and the outlying suburbs. Many foreign investors will now rethink their decisions to place so much of their supply chain in Thailand.

But even more worrying, these floods, which are the worst in Thailand in fifty years, could be a harbinger of the future.

In an excellent story by Agence France Presse , reporters in Bangkok examine why the Thai capital is likely, in years to come, to face similar if not worse floods. Such floods could repeatedly devastate Thailand’s manufacturing base and threaten the millions of people in the capital, which dominates Thailand as the country’s political, cultural, and economic epicenter. Urbanization in the city’s outlying areas has reduced regions of vegetation that absorbed water in the past; overbuilding in the city core has done the same. The capital, built on swamp, is still sinking every year, and with global temperatures rising and weather patterns changing, Thailand is likely to face a longer, more intense rainy season for years to come — which would in turn make the city harder to drain and would more consistently overflow the Chao Praya River. The OECD has classified Thailand’s capital as one of the ten most endangered cities in the world, according to the AFP report. “In 50 years… most of Bangkok will be below sea level,” Anond Snidvongs, an expert on water management, told AFP.

One solution that some Thai environmental experts have begun to suggest: Move the whole capital to land that is higher, more secure from flooding, and easier to protect with dikes. Some think that, over time, this is the only solution and that — even with continued groundwater pumping, better dikes, and more effective flood management concentrated in one government agency — Bangkok is still too insecure to survive global climate change. And the Thais have moved their capital before – from the city of Ayuthaya to Bangkok. But that was in 1782.

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  • Posted by Gavin Greenwood

    Good piece. I only take issue with the notion that Bangkok is ‘… likely, in years to come, to face similar if not worse floods. Such floods could repeatedly devastate Thailand’s manufacturing base …’ Foreign and local investors and insurers may give Bangkok another chance to get its water management system and economic priorities right, but their tolerance – and bottom line – are unlikely to weather a third diluvian disaster.

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