In Bangkok, floods expose lacking urban resilience

Bangkok's urban development over the last 30 years favored density and economics and ignored the city's natural, historic risk of flooding. This year, officials are paying the price.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Humans have been building cities by the water for centuries. But in an era where "urban resilience" -- the ability of a city to resist the effects of climate change, such as a rise in sea levels -- is a buzzword, waterfront views seem less appealing than ever before.

The Associated Press reports this morning that floodwaters threaten Thailand's capital, Bangkok. At this time of year, most of southeastern Asia is on the tail end of the monsoon season; it's a cyclical phenomenon that has repeated itself for centuries. But the floodwaters, worse than ever before, threaten new, dense urban development schemes that put more people at risk.

Bangkok is no stranger to flooding, and many of its oldest homes are built on stilts. But rapid development in "Venice of the East" means raging floodwaters could cause much more damage.

Denis Gray reports:

"In a sense traditional society had an easier coexistence with water and flooding," says Aslam Perawaiz, an expert at the Bangkok-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Center. "Now, with such rapid development there's a much bigger problem."

Across Asia, areas of high population density are also those most prone to flooding and other water-related disasters, according to an Associated Press analysis of recent U.N. 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.

Thailand is now suffering its worst flooding in 50 years, and city officials are scrambling to stop water from reaching the city center. It's not just tens of millions of dollars in economic damages that's at risk: deaths in Asia from severe flooding have already topped 1,000 people.

The irony is that Bangkok and many other Asian hubs such as Jakarta, Manila and Ho Chi Minh City began as agrarian centers that took advantage of fertile soil. As these cities grew in population and popularity, they urbanized, adding highways, industrial parks and suburban malls that are at risk from the very phenomenon for which settlers first came.

In Bangkok, residents are working furiously to pump underground water, so much so that the city sinks a few centimeters each year. Either way, it's clear that the long-term solution is implementing a long-term urban development plan that embraces, not ignores, the city's flood risk -- much like those old homes on stilts.

Asia pays watery price for overdevelopment [AP]

Photo: Christine Olson/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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