Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Bangkok’s Neglected Water Wealth

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I was in Bangkok last mid-April when it started to pour heavily with rain. I was in Sukumvit Road, the heart of the commercial district. Trying to walk to my hotel, I found that my road quickly flooded with rain within a few hours. I returned to Kathmandu, and followed with anxious trepidation news of the flooding in Thailand via Twitter and Facebook.

The stories of old people guarding their small homes by the river banks worried me. I emailed my friends to find out if they were okay. One had fled her home with her parents, an elderly aunt and two dogs. Another friend told me the bottom floor of her parents’ house, close to the airport, had been flooded. The damage to the city seems immense.

And yet, isn’t water a precious commodity, one we should celebrate if we get more of it? I learnt from a Thai animation made by volunteers to inform the general public that the reasons for the flooding were the artificial barriers constructed to dam the flow of water from the highlands down to the sea, as well as deforestation. With no trees to absorb excess rain water, the waters swelled as they moved towards the city.

As a child, I dreamt of Bangkok as a beautiful city filled with lights, flowered decorations and beautiful women in yellow and red silk clothes. But when I actually went to live there, what hit me was the unlimited amount of concrete, heat and noise.

The noise would rise at midnight to my 8th floor room, a high whine from aerodynamic motorcycles ridden by young men with little regard for speed limits. The noise was unbearable. I longed for spaces with greenery and wooden buildings, the kind advertised in Thai magazines. But those had long since been cut down or taken apart. Perhaps my disillusionment at a city in which urban planners had paid so little heed to green trees and natural building materials was also linked to the water issue—a methodical respect for natural environments, as we see in some European cities, would have incorporated water not just as a side issue but as a central part of the city’s identity.

People told me that many traditional canals, or khlongs, that once crisscrossed Bangkok and were a natural pathway for the rainwater to make its way out to sea, had become disused or closed off. At one time there were so many canals that Bangkok was nicknamed “The Venice of the East.” The canals also acted as thriving marketplaces for “floating markets.”

Sadly, few of these canals still remain—they were filled in and turned into asphalted streets and those that remain are not adequately maintained. Properly managed, the city could take this bounty of water and use it to replenish its canals which also act as public transport arteries for its many commuters. Maintaining the existing canals and creating new ones would certainly be a key solution for both public transport as well as a good way of stopping next year’s floods.

In his memoir “A Missionary in Siam: 1860-1870,” N.A MacDonald writes beautifully about the bamboo foundations of Thai homes build on riversides. The foundations could be moved up and down at will with two sliding pieces of bamboo, and people could adjust the foundation length as the waters rose and fell. This may be costly to do in the era of steel and concrete, but stilts can still be replicated at low cost. Architectural designs which utilize stilts – a mainstay of houses built on floodplains for thousands of years – should also be encouraged by the government to avoid the problem of flooding ground floors. Brad Pitt’s non-profit organization, Make It Right, is building modern homes on stilts, in order to combat future flooding.

If Bangkok paid more heed to its traditional urban planning heritage, where water played a central part, it would not think of water as a threat but as an asset. If there was an urban revival of this tradition of valuing water as both live-giving and nourishing, then perhaps the flooding of the rivers would be an carefully managed annual event rather than a disaster. Then perhaps the women wrapped in yellow and red would return to float flower arrangements in the river once again, creating a dream city.

 

 

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sushmajoshi Twitter: joshisushmaSushma

I am a writer and filmmaker from Nepal. Since 1998 (except for a 3 year break to get my Masters in cultural anthropology from the New School for Social Research in NYC), I have been working in South Asia on issues of social justice, gender equality and human rights. In 2010-2011, I was an Asia Fellow doing research on the Nepali diaspora in Myanmar and Thailand. I also write fiction since I feel that non-fiction and reportage often miss the essential human emotions and feelings which make up people's lives. My book of short stories "The End of the World" has eight stories about Nepal--many deal with issues of social inequality and social injustice. This book was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award in 2009. Due to the lack of reliable publishing houses in Nepal, I started Sansar Media in 2010, and am now printing this book and distributing it in Thailand, Singapore, HK and the USA. It will also soon be available in Kindle on Amazon. I aim to print more books written by women authors from Asia and beyond.

Comments

  • Anneliese Guess

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    This was a great article–I learned a lot about Bangkok that I didn’t know before and it got me to thinking about urban planning and the future of cities/megacities. According to National Geographic, “by 2030, two out of three people will live in an urban world” and its important that these people live in healthy environments. In my opinion green space and natural features (like waterways and trees) are important for human life.

    Also, that event in Rhode Island sounds really cool. I’d like to go to it sometime!

    Reply

  • Kai Meinke

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    It is really a shame that all the old canals were closed or left untreated. The old maps of Bangkok showed an incredibly dense functional network that would surely helped the city to overcome the flood quicker if used properly. Thank you very much for this article!

    Reply

    • sushmajoshi

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      I was living in Providence, Rhode Island–which also had a river that was covered up. Mayor Cianci uncovered the river and the downtown has undergone a Reinassance with this river revival. Apparently he has also started annual event “Waterfire”–“which brings up to 100,000 people to the downtown area alone on the summer nights it takes place,” according to Wikipedia. “WaterFire now enjoyed national and international renown. Recently, attendance has increased from thousands to millions of visitors, with crowds reaching nearly two million per season.”
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waterfire

      Reply

    • Tom Fries

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      Water Fire was a huge part of Providence’s renaissance, wasn’t it? Part of the story I always heard, though, was that Buddy Cianci actually sent some of his “associates” to Venice for several weeks to learn how to be gondoliers at the state’s expense. Worth it? Hard to say. I always thought the city’s relationship with Buddy was a fascinating case study – everybody believed he was accomplishing everything via mob connections, but he did manage to turn the city from an urban slum into a beautiful town in about ten years. You can also see the outcome of another Buddy initiative here: he got a TON of Providence buildings registered as historic landmarks. I once heard that there are more per square mile in Providence than in any other city, but I can’t find backup for that claim. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Registered_Historic_Places_in_Providence,_Rhode_Island

      Reply

    • sushmajoshi

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      Hi Tom: Yes, Buddy Cianci is quite controversial (and don’t forget his prison sentences). Despite all this, he did bring that Italian sensibility to urban planning :-) i heard about the big fuss about Cianci and his gondolas and I think it is not warranted. How can people in Providence imagine how Venice is without actually seeing Venice? The US state governments spend money on far crazier things–training for people to learn how to steer a gondola and get a whiff of Venice is quite sensible, in my estimation :-) But then I love everything water-related and I believe any money that revives water culture is well-spent. Sushma

      Reply

  • Radina

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    I found it interesting to read about the changing nature of Bangkok and your observations of the lack of greenery. I think that you are exactly right- we are starting to witness the disappearance of green and quiet places and this will be one of the biggest challenges that we will face in the future. While you were there did you hear of any initiatives that promote the restoration of some of the water canals?

    Reply

    • sushmajoshi

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      Hi Radina: Thanks for your response. I saw plenty of “Green” Ad campaigns in newspapers, but somehow had a harder time linking it to real initiatives on the ground. I am sure there are many Thai NGOs working on this sector. I don’t speak Thai so I had a harder time trying to find out about this–my knowledge was limited to information available in English. Although I guess for the restoration of canals, it would have to be a government initiatve rather than a NGO initiative.

      Reply

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