Just north, workers were scheduled by mid-September to finish protecting another cornerstone of Thailand’s economy – Ayutthaya, the ancient capital which draws millions of visitors each year.
“All our main infrastructure is in good condition,” said Royol Chitradon, director of Thailand’s Hydro and Agro Informatics Institute.
The difference between 2012 and 2011, he says, is that the watershed area has been extended, widened, reinforced and rehabilitated, additional pumps have been installed to increase water flow out of populated areas and the water in the main dams was steadily reduced leading up to the start of the wet season in May.
Although areas in the north and west of the country have seen flooding recently – so too Bangkok – the monsoon season has not been half as ferocious as last year says Adityam Krovvidi, head of the Asia-Pacific office of Impact Forecasting, a risk modeling division at the World’s biggest insurance company Aon Benfield.
“Bangkok has already seen [the] near ‘perfect storm’ last year,” he said of the wet season, which included five tropical storms, already wet conditions in the south around the capital and a high spring tide out in the Gulf of Thailand.
In other words, these were one-in-a-hundred-year weather events, according to experts. Dutch flood expert Verwey says he has seen reports suggesting Thailand may only see the same freak patterns every 250 years. The problem for Thailand – and many other countries – is that these freak weather patterns are almost certain to get more frequent.
“In the future, land subsidence and climate factors could also contribute,” warns Krovvidi.
If Bangkok were not already ideally positioned for flooding – it lies at the low point of a country surrounded in the north, east and west by low-lying mountains – it is also sinking. The most pessimistic forecasts suggest parts of the capital could be underwater by 2030 as the increasing population sucks up ground water, and other environmental factors take their toll.
Combine that with a country that has lost half its tree cover in the past 70 years and you have the ingredients for a modern-day Atlantis, a similar situation facing Manila and Ho Chi Minh City, according to a joint report at the end of last year by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and International Cooperation Agency of Japan.
Songsuda Adhibai, co-founder of S+PBA, an architecture firm that made headlines recently when it designed a Bangkok cityscape floating on water, says the Thai capital’s future flood problems are not just about building dykes and ferrying in sand bags. Long-term solutions are needed, she says, ones which plan ahead beyond just managing water and consider the whole layout and function of the city.
“Don’t ask [so] far ahead about serious flooding,” says Songsuda. “Bangkok is a city that doesn’t have a master plan.”
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.