A sea of concerns as Bangkok slowly sinks

At the corner of Sukhumwit and Asoke roads, a major Bangkok junction, police direct a scene that looks more like a harbor than a road. The intersection is submerged under three feet of water, and drivers beach cars on sidewalks like abandoned ship hulks.

Rainy season in Bangkok always deluges the streets. But experts warn that the city is sinking rapidly, and within decades floods could submerge Bangkok for long periods.

Government and industry inaction is primarily responsible for the sinking, experts say; the problem has been around at least since the early 1980s. But recently, increasing pressure to save the city is forcing officials to come up with a plan.

Today the Thai capital is sinking by as much as two inches a year, potentially putting the entire city below median sea level by 2050, says a report by Thailand's Department of Mineral Resources (DMR). Floods previously limited to certain districts might decimate large swaths of the capital for weeks at a time, the study says.

Built on Chao Phraya River swampland, Bangkok weathers heavy rains during the southeast Asian monsoon season. But because the Chao Phraya is rising, due primarily to the global phenomenon of rising ocean levels, it would be essentially unable to absorb this flooding.

The "Venice of the East" also faces a problem that the waterlogged Italian jewel does not: Factories and housing estates that sprung up during Bangkok's economic boom of the past two decades are overconsuming groundwater, the DMR report says. As more water is pumped out of the ground, soil sinks in to replace it. Land-use analysts here estimate that 2.5 million cubic meters of groundwater are pumped up every day in the capital, double the amount that can safely be removed. Industry alone uses nearly 1.4 million cubic meters of groundwater daily. "If we don't stop overpumping, we will face a really serious crisis," says Deputy Industry Minister Wuthichai Sa-nguanwongchai.

Abuses of the water table occur because groundwater is simply too cheap, Wanchai Ghooprasert, governor of the Provincial Waterworks Authority, has said. Groundwater costs only 3.5 baht (8 cents) per cubic meter, while tap water costs at least 7 baht per meter.

When the city was constructed in the late 18th century, a network of canals helped drain water. But the ability to control flooding has been constrained, because during the past 20 years the city has paved over most canals to build roads and has blocked drainage systems with the unregulated construction of hundreds of buildings.

Yet sources in the DMR, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, say that proposals to permanently address the "sinking city" crisis, such as raising the cost of pumped groundwater, had for years been ignored by the government, which is unwilling to alienate industry.

Now, however, prompted by popular pressure groups and journalists at the country's flagship newspaper, the Bangkok Post, which has publicized the soil-subsidence problem, several bureaucrats including Mr. Wanchai and Industry Minister Suwat Liptapallop have made the sinking of the city a pet issue.

"The government will increase the artesian water charge to 8.5 baht per cubic meter ... there is no point discussing this further," Mr. Suwat told reporters after a Cabinet meeting about groundwater. The national government will also likely help Bangkok install more antiflood pumps and will reduce tap-water charges for industry.

City planners also have proposed a water-injection scheme to fight soil subsidence. The DMR would inject water from higher areas of the city into the soil beneath districts that are sinking most rapidly, slowing subsidence. The Cabinet is considering the injection plan, which could be prohibitively expensive, potentially costing $60 million.

And, residents' associations in several outlying areas of Bangkok have begun to petition their members of Parliament to block unregulated and unzoned construction, which blocks drains in their neighborhoods.

In recent weeks, flooding has killed at least 16 people and affected more than 1 million in Thailand's northeast. Concerned that the rains could submerge more than 20,000 homes in Bangkok this year, officials have ordered the construction of emergency dikes in the capital.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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