While flooding is a common occurrence in Bangkok, the city is far from the lowest-lying capital of the world. Several reasons contribute to Bangkok’s flooding after every rain, such as heavier-than-usual rainfall and tidal surges. Besides natural causes, human activities also contribute to faster-accumulated water and longer draining time; garbage clogs sewers, haphazard city plans, and even excessive groundwater pumping leading to land subsidence.
Elevation of certain areas in Bangkok indicates a higher risk of flash floods, especially in the inner city. Sukhumvit Road is at the mean sea level, making it the lowest road in Bangkok. Petchaburi Road is 8 centimetres above sea level. Still, it is also prone to flooding due to its adjacency to Khlong Saen Saep canal, a floodway that drains northern water to the Chao Phraya river. Inner Bangkok could have faced more frequent floods if it was not for Thonburi, the west side of the river, which is higher and acts as a water barrier. However, a study by the Climate Change Research Center finds that some areas in Bangkok and its perimeter are sinking 3 centimetres a year!
You may have heard about the Netherlands’ highly effective water management, or Japan’s gigantic underground tunnel system that can flush massive water. They are born out of the determination to bring about changes, from the government, private sector, and the people. While well-executed city management directly benefits city dwellers, unobstructed flows in urban activities can also promote stability in other areas. The Netherlands is the second largest agricultural exporter in the world, thanks to its outstanding water management. The Dutch people enjoy a high quality of life and have secure employment. Japan gets to save disaster recovery budgets, and its economy carries on as water does not come into people’s quotidian workflow.
Invest in innovation and policy, and the payoff is a sustainable capital
Have you ever heard of a flood in Singapore? The island country is mainly at the same height as sea level, with only 30% of its land being an average of 5 metres above mean sea level. Staying flood-free, indeed, relies on more than blind luck. The Public Utilities Board, Singapore’s water management agency, has laid down strategies to prevent severe floods. All drainage systems are connected. Two water detention tanks can take 53,000 cubic metres of water in total, a capacity which will be enhanced by another tank due to finish in 2025. They implement technology that slows down the speed of rainwater so as to not overflow other parts. At the same time, Singapore constructed rain gardens to catch, decelerate, and filter water before going to the drainage system. The country has 8,000 kilometres of canals and drains, which can be widened in the future. The Singaporean government has spent over S$2 billion on these measures. They learned lessons from major floods during the 1960s-1980s that caused economic damages. If the basic infrastructure had remained inefficient and the quality of life subpar, Singapore would not have become the powerhouse of Southeast Asia.
Even after the finished construction of the retention and drainage system, Singapore still faces flash floods from excessive rainfall during the monsoon season. However, these problems pose a ‘Learning’ opportunity. They learn, adapt, correct, and improve the already effective system. They are quick to make decisions and take immediate actions to solve the issue. Being the laureate of many developmental awards is not their main goal; true success is learning to live symbiotically with nature. More importantly, Singaporeans know where to spend the central budget, what to prioritise, and what impacts every citizen.
Saving the city for the next generation, Venice fights the tides
Bangkok does not earn the moniker “Venice of the East” out of pretension. Not only is it a commercial hub, but the Thai capital is also as prone to flooding as the Italian city. You might have seen viral photos of tourists wading through the high tide with hands full of luxury shopping bags. Yet the images are nothing new, as Venice has been battling floods for over 1,200 years. The city began to tackle the issue and employ engineering technologies in the 1980s, which only functioned fully in 2021. Fifty years of learning and trials and errors taught Veneziani that this is not somebody’s job but everybody’s obligation.
In one project, Venice directed the flooding seawater to its lagoon. This destroyed some water plants and consequently harmed the animals that feed on them, prompting aquatic plant specialists from Venice University to intervene. Astronomically increasing budget coerced the construction project to halt and search for solutions with the locals. They found that most funding was spent on buying and importing dam construction materials. Alternatively, they could recruit fisherfolk to implement a nature-based measure, such as planting trees as a defence against water. Such a project is more sustainable, costs less money, and creates a legacy for young Veneziani to carry on.
A human-managed ecosystem is an interference with nature. To do so requires the expertise of many fields to effectively mitigate long-term impacts, keeping in mind the principle of coexistence and not leaving a burden to the next generation. For the first time last year, MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) project began its duty and succeeded in preventing floods in Venice. The infrastructure consists of underwater walls that can be lifted to block the incoming tides. Through its 50-years construction, MOSE created local employment and circulated the economy. Policies and systematic development plans should benefit the citizens directly and indirectly. Everyone should get a slice of this cake.
Of course, Bangkok’s flooding problem cannot disappear overnight. When we look at the roads and the buildings, it is hard to imagine a way to make this city of angels more liveable. Perhaps we lack a common imagination, a vision of what better Bangkok looks like. With that said, the government must be the main development agent, and allocate resources to each and every citizen.