'Venice of east' in flood of trouble

Until a hundred years ago, Bangkok, Thailand's "Venice of the east," almost floated on water. Then roads, landfill, and solid foundation houses gradually replaced the boats and stilted houses in which most residents of Bangkok lived. Gradually the canals or "klongs" that served as drainage pits and waterways were builtover.

This month the danger is that Bangkok will once again nearly float on water. Floodwaters pouring into the Chao Phya River from the torrential rains that have inundated the country's north, northeast, and central plains are taxing city officials to prevent a repetition of disastrous 1975 floods.

Ironically it is the building over of the "klongs" that some experts think makes the city of more than 2 million more vulnerable to flooding.

So far, no substitute for the old-fashioned drainage ditches has been built.

In addition, excessive use of deep drilled wells lowers the city's water table, promoting a gradual sinking of the land. According to some estimates, Bangkok could be under the water level of the Chao Phya River by the year 2000 unless remedial steps are taken. Flood vulnerability thus increases.

So far the city has undertaken mainly temporary steps. A flood-prevention program to wall back the Chao Phya River, which bisects the city in the west, has been started. This plan involves more than 30 flood gates and backup pumps to empty overflow. The city is also stockpiling sandbags, and clearing remaining klongs and drainage ditches.

But the government has postponed a more massive project, sponsored in part by the World Bank, that would place a retaining wall around the entire city and allow floodwater to be pumped out.

To date the flood problem has largely affected the city's eastern outskirts, rather than the inner city near the Chao Phya.

More than a meter of water has forced eastern residents to travel about by canoes, minibuses with adventurous drivers who charge inflated prices, and military vehicles.

City officials responded to low-pressure weather systems, which could bring extra-heavy rains, on Oct. 6 by closing all water gates leading to the city's inner districts. The prospect of even more rain dimmed hopes of quickly draining flooded areas in the eastern area of the City.

One danger is that floodwaters entering the Chao Phya upstream could rush southward and overflow in Bangkok's inner city.

To prevent this the royal irrigation department has ordered that a six-kilometer-long levee bank be raised from 2.6 meters high to 3 meters. The levee was built in 1978 after floodwaters from the Chao Phya caused serious damage in Bangkok.

All this means daily inconvenience, plus some smiles and laughter from Bangkok residents. Newspapers are full of pictures showing people in boats, trucks, and bicycles practically submerged, but moving along.

"A development of interest to Olympic officials perhaps?" commented the Bangkok Post newspaper under a photo of a smiling cyclist energetically pedaling a totally underwater bicycle.

And the country's politicians got a chance to display smiling concern as Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda and others toured Bangkok and elsewhere. But the major damage so far is upstream where floodwaters were reported to have brought havoc in 147 district of 28 provinces in the north, northeast, and central plains area.

The Interior Ministry's flood-relief special operations center said more than 75,000 families were affected.

It added 2,295 homes, 29 schools, 25 temples, 253 bridges 1,011 roads, and substantial areas of farmland had been affected.

Initial damage estimates were $11 million, with some $100,000 in relief funds distributed to victims in 20 provinces.

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