04 May, 2007

Bangkok is SINKING while sea-levels are RISING: this is a slow-motion tsunami for Thailand

The Rama VIII bridge at over Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River,
as it may look by about the year 2025

Suvarnabhumi airport’s subsidence problem is merely a microcosm of that faced by the whole of Bangkok: BOTH were ill-advisedly built on a swamp, and BOTH may soon need to move elsewhere unless people open their eyes… pronto.

Suvarnabhumi Airport attracts all the immediate media attention because the short-term consequences are already happening: passengers are being delayed and the tourism dollar is suffering. But when Siam Square gets to be knee-deep in water all year round, the Big Bucks Brigade might start to notice:

Bangkok is caught between the jaws of a potentially cataclysmic “pincer” effect. On one hand the city is currently sinking at about 10cm per year due to excessive pumping of underground water (Bangkok literally floats on cushion of groundwater). On the other hand, we all know that sea-water levels are rising due to Global Warming, and according to Archimedes’ Principle, the Gulf of Thailand cannot be some sort of magic exception, no matter how hard we wish it so.

Recent cataclysmic flood predictions by Thailand’s Mr Smith Dharmasaroja (who predicted the 2004 tsunami) have helped to bring the issue into a little more focus again among Thailand’s complacent and reactionary media. FunkyPix2’s own resident soothsayer predicted Bangkok’s flood threat on this website back in October 2006, but bloggers don’t count. Sometimes it takes huge courage to grasp a stinging nettle. Unfortunately Thai authorities often tend to sit on their hands when faced by a problem too big or scary to confront, or shunt it to someone else. An easier solution is to give the usual small embarrassed giggle and distract people’s attention to something else more palatable and preferably 'sanook' [=fun]. The Suvarnabhumi airport fiasco is a fine example of hoping someone else would take resposibility for telling the emperor he had no clothes.

If you are in any doubt about the effect of Global Warming on the Bangkok region, click on this NASA-Google Global Warming Flood-map When it opens (in a new window), click on “Sea Level Rise 14 metres” and be prepared for a shock as Greater Bangkok submerges. Fourteen metres of water will be the outcome of both polar caps melting. (Bear in mind that the result is under-estimated in built-up areas because the satellite camera reads the tops of buildings as being ‘ground-level’). A rise of between 5-7 metres is already unavoidable… why not click to see how that looks too? Time to buy some Water-wings yet if you live in a ground-floor Bangkok condo?
With 20-20 hindsight, we can confidently say that it wasn’t smart to locate Bangkok on the flood-plain of a major river delta. Back then, though, it made much better sense, given the boat-culture, smaller buildings, and rice-growing industry. King Rama I could not have possibly been aware of future world-wide Climate Catastrophe. Nor could he have predicted the enormous size and weight of the skyscrapers of the future, made architecturally possible by the invention of reinforced concrete, viz:

The 43-storey Baiyoke Building at Pratunam (=Watergate!!).

The same Baiyoke Building, seen from the revolving observation deck on the top of its big sister, the giant 88-storey Baiyoke Tower. Your ears pop when whizzing up in the high-speed lifts.

Skytrain, Siam Square. Like heavy, man. The underground water-table round here is quite close to the surface, so life is a bit like lying on a waterbed. Residents have long accepted the consequent instability which causes frequent minor cracking in walls.

Bangkok has traditionally been called “the Venice of the East” with its suburban networks of canals (“Khlongs”). But alas, no more – the khlongs have mostly been filled in to create roads, so floodwater during the Wet Season no longer has anywhere to go, especially at high tide. Even during a normal rainstorm, we have observed water bubbling up and out of roadside drains rather than going down them (near Sukhomwit Road).

Noi Khlong, Bangkok. Undated old photo.

Thailand’s former floating markets have virtually shrunk to one ‘theme park’,
retained specifically as a tacky tourist trap.

To his great credit, Thailand’s King Bhumibol has generously offered to permit some of his own lands to be inundated in the attempt to absorb excess water, but that can be little more than a temporary and inadequate solution. This issue is big.

Mr Smith’s well-meant suggestion of building massive sea-wall dykes to prevent sea-flooding probably has only short-term merit and would surely come at a budget-breaking expense, given the need to insert frequent sluice gates. Thailand’s coast is far too long and convoluted – much longer than that of Holland. The reality of a dyke is not infallible, either… we all remember “Noo Orluns” and respect the power of Nature. Or we should.

Not that sort of massive dyke, dummy

And even if the sea were successfully prevented from flooding in, a dyke could potentially trap floodwaters coming downstream along the Chao Phraya river. Pray that we don’t get a king tide, a monsoon flood, and Global Warming all on the same day, or a dyke wall may be the only place that’s out of the water apart from the Baiyoke buildings…

Bangkok of the future might redefine the term ‘pool table’.

Subsidence can sometimes get just that bit too personal.

The inevitable conclusion? We have to face the gut-wrenching truth that Bangkok is now in the wrong place, and I’m sure King Rama I would be the first to agree, given the changes in circumstances from his era. Sooner or later, people will be forced to recognise the fact. Property values will progressively get squeezed down as flood-mitigation costs consume rental income, while buyers and renters will begin to look elsewhere for more permanence and drier feet.

It won’t be the first time the Thai capital has been re-located, but this time it will be much harder than before. It will have to be a slow collective decision by millions of individuals rather than a quick executive decision by a monarch. Those who have the vision to ride the crest of this property wave will suffer the least financial loss, and indeed the canny ones may profit (“The Early Bird Gets the Worm”, etc). But this vision collides head-on with the unquestioned optimism and momentum of current administrations, all bent on building more Skytrain extensions, more infrastructure and ever more weight.

For the average employee on 200 baht a day, the day-to-day demands of work preclude attention to such long-term issues - it's up to the leadership to grasp the nettle. So - is it time for a re-make of the world as we know it? Imagine the screen options...
....................Delete Old City?.....Delete.
...................‘Create New City?..Create.

If you are into Thai or Khmer cosmology, you’ll recall that the World is merely a plate resting on the back of a large elephant, which in turn is standing on the shell of a simply enormous turtle. The re-appearance of the giant cosmic turtle therefore may well frighten these Thai Boatmen crossing the River Styx (…or am I mangling my cultural metaphors too much? Whatever, you get the drift). But weird creatures recently washed up on beaches between Huahin and Bang Saphan in the western Gulf of Thailand seem to hint at strange happenings beginning to unfold [fade up scary music]:


P.S: One irrelevant question on that cosmology legend: What the heck is the giant turtle standing on? In a book by Prof Stephen Hawking is an account of a lecture on astronomy once given by some big-name scientist. After the lecture, an elderly lady came up and told the scientist that he had it all wrong. "The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise," she said. The scientist asked "And what is the turtle standing on?"
To which the lady triumphantly replied: "You’re very clever, young man, but it’s no use – it’s turtles all the way down".


  1. Anonymous06 May, 2007

    definately need alot massive dykes to stop all that nam/water!
    cheers, anna

  2. We need an expert on dykes - do you know where to find one?
    cheese, Peter.