Thailand: On Ecology and Economy


Professor Helen Ross

The annual flooding season is upon Thailand and its neighbours. The severity varies from year to year, both up-country and in Bangkok. This year the north east – unusually – and Mekong neighbours have been hard hit. The costed effects include economic damage to agriculture and buildings. Uncosted effects in Bangkok include severe disruptions to traffic flows.

Flooding is a natural phenomenon. The very conditions which gave Bangkok economic advantage and helped Thailand thrive –its port, on a navigable river, right in ‘the rice bowl’ of Thailand – are also those which make it vulnerable to flooding. Thais of the central plain formerly adapted cleverly to this floodplain system, taking economic advantage of the silt deposits and using the waterways for transport and sustenance, while building and siting their houses to cater for the floods. Legal loopholes were exploited for years to allow housing estates and factories to be built in the two ‘green belts’ either side of Bangkok, interfering with their ecological role as exposed soil where water could infiltrate, and a passage for floodwater.

A 1996 land use planning regulation that housing only be permitted in the Chao Phraya’s floodway through Samut Prakarn province if the first floor is 1.8 metres high was publicly condemned on the grounds that homebuyers would be unwilling to live that way nowadays. Maybe so, but the area is guaranteed to flood annually because it receives the waters diverted from Bangkok by dykes and other engineering works. So does the site of the new international airport.

Contemporary flooding is far from natural. The flow of floodwaters from the north is moderated by major dams, which unsurprisingly are silting up because the eroded soils carried at flood time are unable to reach the plains. Central and Eastern Bangkok are inherently more flood-prone than they used to be, because of severe land subsidence attributed to decades of over-drawing underground water to supply the city. Dykes and floodgates divert floodwaters from central Bangkok and around the city onto planned open spaces to the east and west intended to act as floodways. This disadvantages those living or farming there. The number of canals capable of providing drainage (many filled to provide roads) has declined. This, coupled with the extent of built-over surfaces, means that less open land is available to absorb rain, and more water has to run off through reduced channels. Allowing the floodways to be built over is a high risk factor for private homes, the airport, and for enterprises using nearby land.

While Thailand has been focused for the last three years on political and economic reforms, we have not heard much about sustainable development. The issue of flooding should remind us that sustainable development requires understanding of how ecology and economy are linked at all levels.

WATCHPOINT: Thais are finding that within ecosystems, it is easy to solve one problem yet unwittingly cause others.


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