‘You could see and smell the daily flow of trash’: how Bangkok is struggling to protect its slums from flooding

Authorities have struggled to convince most occupants to relocate

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 10:00pm

Rung, 63, fought a running battle against the rubbish and raw ­sewage besieging her old home in a wooden slum perched on stilts on the banks of Bangkok’s Lat Phrao canal.

“You could see and smell the daily flow of trash,” recalled the tailor who goes by one name. “It would stop at the back of my house. I wanted a better life for my son and daughter.”

On Christmas Day last year, Rung moved into a brand new, blue-painted house just metres from her old one in the Chao Phor Somboon community – part of the Thai capital’s attempts to clear a waterway of illegal settlements that contributed to catastrophic floods in 2011.

Rung, who now pays just US$2 (HK$15) per month towards the US$6,000 construction cost of her new ­two-room home, is one of the successes of a project along the Lat Phrao canal launched almost two years ago, which is so far only about a third complete.

The authorities have struggled to convince most slum dwellers to relocate, and are unlikely to meet the project deadline of June 2019, according to a senior official.

Delays to the canal rehabilitation, and the slow progress or abandonment of a flurry of other flood-prevention schemes announced after 2011 could result in a bigger flood disaster in the ­decades ahead unless urgent action is taken, experts warn.

Besides causing damage worth $46 billion, the floods six years ago affected more than 3 million of Bangkok’s residents, mostly the poor, across 36 of the 50 districts that make up the sprawling megacity.

Key causes of the flooding ­included subsidence, poor infrastructure, weak government coordination, and the blockage of vital waterways by littering and unregulated construction.

The extensive canal and drainage network that once helped manage the flow of water in the Chao Phraya River has been largely filled in to accommodate the traffic that now clogs the capital’s streets.

And while efforts to better equip the city to handle floodwaters have struggled to keep pace with a booming population, the threat from climate change has worsened, experts say.

“The wet places will become wetter, and the dry places will become drier,” said Abhas Jha, a manager for urban development and disaster risk at the World Bank. “What we used to call a one-in-a-hundred-year event is happening more frequently.”

As the monsoon season has become increasingly unpredictable, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration Flood Control Centre has set up a flood monitoring system across the city and an alert system that incorporates social media.

But the city needs to expand early warnings to ensure they do not ignore the poor and rural areas, urban experts said.