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FEATURE-Bangkok struggles to protect slum dwellers as floods worsen

Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Squatter communities along canals are no strangers to floods - but they are happening more often, and the concerns of the urban poor are being overlooked, say experts

By Thin Lei Win

BANGKOK, June 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In Phrom Samrit, a squatter settlement along a major canal in Bangkok, most of the 300 households live cheek by jowl and have become used to floods after living next to water all their lives. But now their resilience is being chipped away, says Adirak Sangnut, the slum's elected leader.

"Before, it started flooding after raining for three days. But now, it floods after just three hours of rain," the 47-year-old said. "After a while, if nothing is done, it'll be less than an hour before it starts flooding."

As Thailand's rainy season gets underway, residents in and around Bangkok say they are experiencing more intense and frequent seasonal floods since 2011, when the capital was hit by its worst flooding in half a century.

That flood disaster - caused by factors including an unusually heavy monsoon, building on flood plains and changes in water management - affected millions of people and caused $45.7 billion in losses.

Experts do not expect floods of that magnitude again any time soon but say the city's low-lying location, continued urbanisation and extreme weather linked to climate change are raising Bangkok's vulnerability to floods.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) is planning 28 flood protection projects worth nearly 26 billion baht ($765.6 million).

They include dredging and expanding canals, and constructing flood barriers and water retention areas to drain and divert floodwater to Thailand's main conduit, the Chao Phraya River.

The budget for four projects to build embankments along canals has already been approved, and an extra 2 billion baht from the military government is being used to carve out giant underground tunnels, said Vallop Suwandee, chairman of an advisory group to the Bangkok governor.

The city also issued a resilience strategy earlier this year that includes improved weather forecasts and drainage systems.

Yet not everyone approves of the BMA's plans. Adirak says nearly half of his neighbours, who live near Don Muang airport, disagree with the canal works, fearing they will lose their homes.

Experts have criticised the plans for focusing too much on hard infrastructure solutions which they say are costly and will never be adequate.

Barriers such as flood walls could trap rainwater, worsening flash floods, and create a two-tier system where some areas are protected at the expense of others, usually the urban poor and those in neighbouring provinces, they add.

But Vallop said climate change makes it imperative for Bangkok to prepare.

"It's necessary for Bangkok and Thailand to invest in infrastructure. If we do not do it now, the damage may cost a lot more in the future," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The city government has warned investors and home-owners whose properties are on major floodways - spillover channels for floodwater - but they have built there anyway, he added.

Deputy government spokesman Lieutenant-General Werachon Sukhondhapatipak said Bangkok lacks effective infrastructure to handle large-scale flooding.

Problems include inadequate town planning, construction blocking waterways and littering of drainage systems, he said by email. "Effective flood management requires genuine cooperation from all sides," he added.