When a city of canals floods, what happens to waterway shantytowns?

Trudy Harris
New homes along Bangkok's Lat Phrao Canal are replacing shantytowns and allowing dredging and enlarging of the waterway to improve drainage for the low-lying city.
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Offer a slum dweller a new home close to his old one, and he still might not want to move. Sopon Lee helped convince 650 other residents along a Bangkok canal that it was a good idea. After allaying fears about size, cost, and whether the authorities could be trusted, he, with the others, finally reached agreement with the government.

The slum’s relocation is a successful example of authorities working with the poorest people to protect them from the rising threat of floods. Asia’s megacities have struggled with unchecked development, poor urban planning, and exploding populations. Climate change is exacerbating the problem. But there’s been a shift toward resilience projects that work closely with marginalized groups.

Why We Wrote This

Trust was missing – at first. But some large Southeast Asian cities have learned that involving communities in decision-making is a first step in flood control that benefits more than just the people in harm’s way. This story is part of an occasional Monitor series on “Climate Realities.”

As Bangkok has boomed, residents along the canal say they have watched as condos and office towers have been thrown up with little regard for the environment, their waste dumped directly into once-pristine waters. “This canal ... we used to drink from it. We remember when there were rice fields here and buffaloes grazing,” says Narong Sangwew, a retired printing press worker.

Mr. Sopon says he feels that with the relocation, he has secured his family’s future. “And we still have water views,” he says.

Sopon Lee recalls the dirty, stinking water that regularly swept through his wooden home in a slum on the edge of a Bangkok canal. Thailand’s annual monsoon rains often brought flooding to the city, forcing members of his family to grab their sodden belongings and race to higher ground.

“It was part of normal life for us,” he says, remembering how the rubbish-filled water reached waist level one year. “Then you repair and rebuild as best you can.”

When the government came knocking three years ago with a flood prevention plan to raze the illegal settlement and build new homes a few yards back from the water, Mr. Sopon saw a rare opportunity.

Why We Wrote This

Trust was missing – at first. But some large Southeast Asian cities have learned that involving communities in decision-making is a first step in flood control that benefits more than just the people in harm’s way. This story is part of an occasional Monitor series on “Climate Realities.”

“We had no legal right to be there, no security, so we never knew what the future would bring. This was our chance,” says Mr. Sopon, whose family had lived along the canal rent-free for years.

But there was a catch. Mr. Sopon and other community elders needed to convince all 650 residents of their community to agree to the plan, or the deal was off. After 12 months of tirelessly working to allay fears not only about the size and cost of the new homes, but also about whether the authorities could be trusted, they finally reached agreement.

“There were so many meetings, day and night. We visited other sites; we talked with government officials to get questions answered. It was exhausting. But I was retired; I had the time,” Mr. Sopon says, sitting with other elders on the small front porch of one of the new homes, surrounded by potted plants and wind chimes.

The slum’s relocation along Lat Phrao Canal is a successful example of authorities working with the poorest people to protect them from the rising threat of floods. Asia’s megacities have long struggled to cope with flooding because of unchecked development, poor urban planning, and exploding populations. Experts in the region say they are seeing a shift toward projects that directly involve marginalized communities, as authorities try to build resilience across their cities.

But climate change is exacerbating the problem, bringing rising sea levels and abnormal weather patterns like increased rainfall and more powerful typhoons. In recent years, Bangkok has been dredging canals, moving slums that block them, and building tunnels and barriers in efforts to prevent the kind of disastrous floods that hit the Thai capital in 2011, killing more than 800 people nationwide. The experts warn much more needs to be done, especially to protect the most vulnerable people.

Uniquely positioned to flood

“Almost every major Asian city in this region has suffered major flooding in the last 10 years,” says Abhas Jha, a manager in the region for urban development and disaster risk at the World Bank. “The situation will become worse. What we used to call a one-in-a-100-year event is happening more frequently,” he says. “The wet places will become wetter and the dry places will become drier.”

East Asian cities face high risks of natural disasters and climate change, according to a World Bank report. Cities like Bangkok; Manila, Philippines; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, are all low-lying, coastal behemoths, built in the deltas of major river systems.

But Bangkok, with a population of 10 million, is also sinking under the weight of its own frenetic development. The city is built on what was once marshland, which includes a layer of soft clay. Natural land subsidence, or sinking, has been made worse by decades of overpumping of groundwater, a practice that authorities have successfully stemmed. Without groundwater, the clay dries out, leaving it susceptible to more subsidence.

Trudy Harris
Along Bangkok's Lat Phrao Canal, some communities have not yet decided to relocate to new dwellings that the city is building. Some residents question their cost because they don't have regular income. Others who may lose space are objecting to the uniform size of the new homes.

Concrete urban jungle has also taken over natural drainage sites and green areas, preventing rain from replenishing the groundwater. Instead of seeping into the ground, much washes into the canals and underground drainage network that once managed the flow of Bangkok’s mighty Chao Phraya River. Some of these are now clogged with garbage, or have been developed over.

Bangkok risks being submerged in less than 15 years unless urgent action is taken, a 2015 study by Thailand’s National Reform Council warned.

As with most flood disasters, poor populations are likely to be hit hardest. Across Asia, millions of rural poor people have flocked to the cities seeking better-paying jobs resulting from booming development, squeezing into whatever housing they can afford. East Asia is home to the world’s largest slum population of 250 million people, many of whom live in poor-quality housing on flood-prone land with limited access to basic services, the 2017 World Bank report said.  

In Indonesia, court battle over forced moves

In another of the world’s fastest-sinking cities, Jakarta, Indonesia, officials have also tried moving slums, homes for tens of thousands often clustered on stilts along the Indonesian capital’s canals, clogging the waterways.

Residents of these informal settlements, or kampungs, complain of being forced to move to new homes far from their jobs and question officials’ motives behind the resettlements, in a city where land is scarce and corruption a problem. Authorities say the relocations are critical for cleaning up the waterways to prevent regular flooding and protect everyone, but they have been met with angry resistance. One kampung won a court case against the government trying to push the residents out.

“There can’t be top-down solutions to these problems. If you want this to be successful, communities need to be consulted, to be more included in the decisions,” says Elisa Sutanudjaja, a kampung advocate and executive director of the Rujak Center for Urban Studies in Jakarta.

“Most of them want to stay together. There is a social cohesion and structure to these communities that is a traditional part of Indonesian life,” says Ms. Sutanudjaja, adding that communities were confident in a more inclusive approach from the city’s new governor.

In a sign of just how dire the situation has become in Jakarta, Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced in April he was considering moving the entire capital somewhere else. Jakarta, choked with traffic and pollution, sits on a swampy plain on the shores of the Java Sea. North Jakarta has sunk by an alarming 8 feet in the last 10 years. At that rate, 95% of north Jakarta will be underwater by 2050, affecting more than a million people, according to the World Economic Forum.

Ms. Sutanudjaja, however, scoffs at the president’s suggestion. With a population of almost 30 million, including the Greater Jakarta area, too many livelihoods are at stake. “This has been raised many times before, but I don’t believe it will happen,” she says.

Despite the kampungs’ battles, Mr. Jha from the World Bank says extensive consultation with poor communities about protection from flooding and other climate change impacts is increasing in the region. A shift is occurring in the way authorities tackle the problem, he says, because of increasing evidence that community-led development projects work. He points to large-scale upgrading of slums in Vietnam as well as Indonesia that included connecting them to basic services (rather than bulldozing and forcing people to relocate to new homes, often miles away), improving drainage, and involving local community networks in disaster risk management plans.

Green spaces and better planning

Not every community along the Lat Phrao Canal has agreed to move. But Bangkok’s slum project has been largely successful because it prioritized community participation, including empowering members and addressing their specific needs, a study by the United Kingdom-based development think tank Overseas Development Institute found.

More work is needed, however, including to ensure that early warning systems reach poor communities and that they are clear on what action to take. While big infrastructure projects like dikes and underground drainage are important, so too are green spaces, rainwater harvesting, and other innovative, cost-effective solutions, experts say.

A park with playgrounds and lawns opened at a university in Bangkok last year with an unusual feature – an underground container that, along with a pond, can hold a million gallons of water if flooding hits. The new green haven is a big deal in Bangkok, which has among the lowest ratios of green space in Asia, 3.3 square meters (35.5 square feet) per person compared with 13.5 (145 square feet) for Shanghai and 19.3 (207.7 square feet) for Washington, D.C., the Siemens-sponsored Green City Index showed.

More urban planning is also needed based on research, mapping, and understanding of the risks, and those policies need to be enforced so that property is not built on flood plains and on earthquake fault lines, Mr. Jha adds. “There are a great number of people and assets in harm’s way.” The floods that swept Thailand in 2011 caused an estimated $46.5 billion in losses and damages, with factories and industrial estates inundated, residents evacuated, and planes grounded at Bangkok’s second, smaller airport.

Mr. Jha applauded the painstaking work by Bangkok’s Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI), a government agency charged with ushering through the rebuilding and relocation of some 7,000 poor households along a large stretch of the Lat Phrao Canal. The project, however, was running behind schedule and would not be finished for another two to three years, according to officials.

Lengthy negotiations with the communities were partly responsible for the overrun, with some reluctant to move, unsure of whether they could afford the nominal cost of the new homes, Bangkok’s chief resilience officer, Supachai Tantikom, explains.

“They cannot go on living there. It’s dangerous because it’s blocking the water. But we can’t do the dredging and we can’t build the walls and we can’t build the new homes until they agree to move,” says Dr. Supachai, a civil engineer who oversees flood upgrading projects.

Residents were partly blamed for the 2011 floods because their rubbish blocked the murky waterways, causing them to overflow, he adds.

It's the upscale growth, too

Mr. Sopon and the other elders dismiss this as scapegoating. As Bangkok has boomed over the years, they say they have watched in dismay as condos and office towers have been thrown up with little regard for the environment, their waste dumped directly into what were once pristine waters.  

“This canal used to be our lifeline. We used to drink from it. We remember when there were rice fields here and buffaloes grazing,” says Narong Sangwew, a retired printing press worker who started squatting on the state land on the canal’s edge years ago, building a home as best he could and raising his family.

Mr. Narong and the others say they have no regrets about accepting the government’s offer. They pay about 1,000 baht ($30) a month toward the 200,000 baht ($6,500) construction cost of their new two-bedroom homes, after taking out low-interest loans through CODI. Mr. Sopon, who used to own a small business selling papaya salad before retiring, shares two slightly bigger homes with his family of nine, including four grown sons.

Mr. Sopon says he feels like he has secured a future for them. Under the deal, he and his family will eventually own the homes and can live there for at least another 30 years, paying 40 baht ($1.25) a month to the city in land rent.

“And we still have water views,” he says.

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

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