Bangkok

City Profile / Jan - Feb 2018

Bangkok

by Dr Ann Deslandes

Long-standing concerns about the effects of climate change on the city of Bangkok were dramatically increased when the city flooded in 2011. Over 740 people were killed and it was many months before the city was functioning again. The damage to the Thai capital was estimated at over USD9 billion. 

There was no debate about whether the flooding was related to climate change. “In the context of climate change, the substantially increased pre-monsoon rainfall in the Chao Phraya River (Thailand’s major river) basin after 1980 and the continual sea level rise in the river outlet both played a role,” according to climate researcher Parichart Promchote, writing in the journal of the American Meteorological Society. Both increased rainfall and rising sea levels are known effects of global warming.

“Projections for climate change impacts in Bangkok point primarily to an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events,” according to expert researchers Dr Sangram Shrestha and Dr Shobhakar Dhakal in their contribution to an edited collection of analyses from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting held in 2013. Within this, “Flooding is a particular concern. By 2070, Bangkok is expected to be ranked seventh among the world’s cities in terms of population exposed to coastal flooding (over 5 million people) and 10th in terms of the assets exposed (around USD1,117 billion).”

Flooding is not the only effect of climate change that the city must continue to mitigate. Bangkok is also sinking; a study by the National Reform Council of Thailand in 2015 predicted that the city, currently sitting below sea level, could be completely submerged before 2030.

As the world grows hotter and wetter, coastal, low-lying, monsoonal Bangkok will be a bellwether for the mitigation of climate change in major global cities, making Green architecture and design a hot-button issue in debates about the capital’s future. The city government has instituted a number of building codes and population-level strategies aimed at creating a low-carbon, resilient built environment to face the ongoing impacts of climate change, whilst one of Bangkok’s leading architects believes a more dramatic reboot of the city is in order. 

Direct and in direct impacts of climate change

To be sure, the Great Flood of 2011 further underscored the urgency for city officials and citizens in Bangkok to prepare for an urban future likely to be marked by floods; higher surface temperatures; severe storms; droughts; sea level rise; and reduced public health—all as a direct result of climate change.

Further, Bangkok faces numerous indirect impacts of climate change. These include increased land subsidence due to over-pumping of groundwater required due to drought conditions; decreased food security due to a rise in temperature (for example, in rice paddies) and decrease in water availability leading to reduction or loss of livestock; increased temperature meaning increased use of energy for air-conditioning so increased energy contributing to an urban heat island (UHI) effect, which can create higher concentrations of some pollutants; increased spread of diseases such as dengue, which is incubated by rising temperatures; and a decrease in tourism due to rising sea level, which causes erosion of popular coastal sites such as mangroves and coral reefs, thus reducing the protection of coastal properties such as hotels and restaurants.

As in the rest of the world, these climate change impacts are not evenly distributed across the population. A World Bank report from 2009 (that is still used as a benchmark for assessing future mitigation needs) predicts that about 1 million inhabitants of Bangkok and Samut Prakam (a neighbouring province to the south of the city) will be affected by high-level climate change in 2050.

Of this, the authors write that “one in eight of the affected inhabitants will be from the condensed housing areas where most live below the poverty level”, such as in the Bang Khun Thian district in the south of the city.

Further, “one-third of the total affected people may be subjected to more than a half-metre inundation for at least one week. This marks a two-fold increase of that vulnerable population.”

The projected impact on the built environment demonstrates a clear role for designers, architects and planners, particularly those concerned with the domestic sphere. As the World Bank authors put it, “Buildings and houses are the most affected infrastructure. More than a million building (residential, commercial and industrial) units in Bangkok and Samut Prakarn might be impacted by flooding in 2050. These impacted buildings will include about 300,000 units in the western areas such as Bang Khun Thian, Bang Bon, Bang Khae and Phra Samut Chedi districts. The total partial damage (to buildings and assets) may exceed 110 billion baht (USD3.14 billion) at current prices.”

“Nevertheless, half of the cost will be due to probable partial damage caused to the large number of new buildings that will be subjected to land subsidence in the flood-prone areas,” the authors add.

The shocking nature of these evidence-based predictions is not lost on Bangkok architect Ponlawat Buasri of the firm S+PBA.

“Crisis is coming and Bangkok needs a survival kit. When we are sinking, we’ll have three options—fence, float or flee,” he tells FuturArc.

Buasri’s proposed Wetropolis (see sidebar), a city that accepts that flooding happens and learns to thrive on its vicissitudes, takes the ‘float’ option, and builds on long-standing cultural traditions of living with, rather than against, water. The vision for Wetropolis has low-lying communities elevated 5 metres over the land—literally rising above the physical reality of flooding, rising sea levels and land subsidence. The space between would be permitted to flood along naturally occurring lines, feeding indigenous mangrove forests, which would in turn process carbon dioxide and filter water.

“People (in Bangkok) have always built their houses with high columns to get ready for the annual flooding cycle; leaving the ground floor empty or not using it every day,” he says. In designing Wetropolis, “I just imitated this, using it to explore a proper solution (to the impacts of climate change) for both local and global contexts.”

Launched in 2011, the Wetropolis proposal certainly got people talking, and is still regularly profiled in journalism and literature that looks to the future of Bangkok and other megacities in Asia. Proposals to work with floodwater and still pursue productive land use in such a way have also been taken up by other architecture firms, such as in Shma Company’s Ultra Flood Plain, which proposes a water detention network for the nearby city of Ayutthaya (cf. Koen Olthius and Waterstudio—see article by Mun-Delsalle in this issue of FuturArc).

Mitigating climate change in Bangkok: Responding to indirect and direct impacts

Officially, plans for the mitigation of climate change in both its direct and indirect impacts are governed by the Bangkok Master Plan on Climate Change 2012–2023, developed by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency in 2012. This plan “aims to expand the scope of BMA activities to focus on adaptation and mitigation plans by partnering with different governance levels, public and private sectors, and establishing monitoring and evaluation mechanisms as well as measurement, report and verification mechanisms”. The BMA has also, since 2007, been a signatory to the Declaration of Cooperation on Alleviating Global Warming Problems that commits, among other things, to supporting all sectors and stakeholders to jointly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promoting the sufficiency economy lifestyle to prepare for, and adapt to, global warming.

Within this, the authority has overseen initiatives such as the expansion of mass public transit; promotion of renewable energy and efficient energy management; improvement of solid waste water management and treatment efficiency; as well as an expansion of green space. Green urban planning is a critical element here. For example, the BMA, as Dr Monthip Sriratana, Director of Climate Change Research Strategy Center at the National Research Council of Thailand, notes, is involved in the following:

• Undertaking energy-saving renovation/repair work on government facilities such as retrofitting BMA assets to meet LEED requirements;

• Promoting low-carbon, energy-saving detached house structures in residential areas, and promoting features such as double glazing, heat barrier films and solar panel installations;

• Conducting energy-efficiency inspections of government buildings; and

• Providing incentives for constructing or retrofitting energy-saving factories in industrial areas.

Through these initiatives, Bangkok has been able to reduce its CO2 production by 7.02 million tonnes.

“As Bangkok is a leading Southeast Asian city, BMA is taking proactive measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change in the short, medium and long term,” says Dr Sriratana. “We promote actions by citizens, the private sector and academia. We set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions against what they would be if emissions continued without any intervention—against a business as usual (BUA) benchmark.”

Ponlawat Bausri is skeptical of the city authority’s plans to ‘green’ city buildings under the current circumstances, suggesting that design features such as those aimed at energy conservation and water recycling could be purely cosmetic, and planners and governors need to think more holistically, perhaps with a vision closer to Koen Olthius’ blue city (see article by Mun-Delsalle in this issue).

“We have a lot of big new projects that meet the ‘green code’,” he says. “But meanwhile, they cut down trees to construct the buildings with no hesitation.”

Like all human measures that require collective action, often including behaviour changes, long-term thinking and long-term investments. Bangkok’s plans to mitigate flooding, greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other direct and indirect impacts of climate change are reliant on systems coordination, resource allocation and political will. Whilst this can be difficult to measure or to prosecute, there is no doubt that Green architecture and design is a critical part of this future.

Wetropolis (Case study)

Wetropolis is a proposal for rebuilding Bangkok to resist flood by rising above it. Bangkok-based firm S+PBA debuted their idea for “a post-diluvian future” at AEDES Gallery in Berlin on September 2011, and has continued to iterate it.

Wetropolis starts from the principle that Bangkok was underwater before the land emerged over 300 years ago, and traces the uses of land and the built environment in earlier epochs to the present day, where Bangkok is again sinking (at around 5 to 10 millimetres per year), and also facing catastrophic predictions of future flooding.

“Many places solve the flood problem with dikes,” says S+PBA’s Ponlawat Bausri. “But this is useless in Bangkok.” As such, the proposed water-based metropolis has the following features:

• A three-storey structure built above sea and land

• People are connected by cars, bicycles or other eco-vehicles, with the waterway being the most convenient for transport

• Powered by solar power; a thin-film solar cell on the top storey

• A hydroponic food farm that grows protein-rich food (to replace livestock), along with shrimp farming—a staple of the Thai economy

• Rain and seawater converter for drinking water

• Mangroves on the land/flood plain that are fed by the city’s waste water, and that in turn filter waste

• Inspired by the stilt homes of Koh Pan Yii, asupramarine settlement in southern Thailand that successfully operates above ground

“Bangkok is still labouring under a very antediluvian mindset where flooding is considered a crisis and not a constant. Bangkok has always been flooded and the latest apocalyptic predictions only suggest that flooding will return with increased consistency. Once the city is submarine, can we even call this phenomenon flooding? Flooding implies a passing phase rather than a fixed environment, and yet, at the current juncture, water is much more predictable than land. In order to initiate a postdiluvian perspective that designs for water, we must abandon the metropolis in favour of the Wetropolis, and architecture in favour of aquatecture,” S+PBA, from their website (https://spluspba.weebly.com/apost-diluvian-future.html).

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