Designing a resilient city: Bangkok’s flooding problem
For Bangkok residents, wading through flooded streets is an all too common experience. As recently as June this year, Thailand’s most populous city was brought to a standstill after days of heavy rains caused major flooding.
The inundation levels were the highest they had been in 25 years – the Thai Meteorological Department said 141.5 millimetres of rain was recorded in the 24 hours to 21 June 2016, forcing the closure of three schools as streets turned into canals.
According to the Bangkok Post, there was extreme traffic congestion, with some people trapped in their houses as they waited for the water level to subside to normal levels.
ONGOING FLOOD DANGER
Unfortunately for Bangkok residents, this is not the first time that such a catastrophic flood episode has happened and it seems unlikely to be the last.
At the peak of the 2016 flood, Bangkok Governor M R Sukhumbhand Paribatra told the Bangkok Post that residents must prepare for further flood events.
“We apologise to the people affected by floods. But this problem will occur again because Bangkok is a city of water and rain,” he said.
Commenting after the floods, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha zeroed in on the elephant in the room – Bangkok’s drainage system is not functioning and requires a dramatic overhaul.
“Rest assured the Government will do its best to help people affected by floods. It is hard to avoid flooding, as we know how the drainage system works. We need a sustainable solution,” the Prime Minister said.
And this is where AECOM’s work with 100 Resilient Cities, powered by the Rockefeller Foundation, comes in. In collaboration with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), we are encouraging government, businesses and civil society to think about how shock events, like flooding, contribute to the existing stresses of the city’s most vulnerable people.
We at AECOM are in the midst of supporting Bangkok as it creates a strategy, in part to reduce the magnitude of flood events and their impacts, by helping to build the resilience of its residents.
But before we turn to a solution, we must understand the sources of the problem. Bangkok, while it is a city of 10 million people, is quite young. It has grown rapidly in the last 50 years, but suffers from instances of poorly regulated infrastructure.
In tandem with this, the city is built on a floodplain and is in the low-lying terrain of the Chao Phraya River delta. When there is heavy rainfall in Bangkok and the river’s upstream catchment, a huge amount of water enters the river, ultimately resulting in flooding.
While other cities also feel the impact of flooding, because of Bangkok’s size and the extent to which it dominates the economy in Thailand, finding a solution is crucial.
THE WASTE MANAGEMENT LINK
Compounding Bangkok’s geographic location and propensity towards flooding is the large number of unregistered inhabitants in the city. Around 15 percent or 1.5 million people are illegal immigrants and are extremely vulnerable to both exploitation and shock events like flooding. If you put that in the context of Sydney, it would be the equivalent of 600,000 illegal workers.
Many of Bangkok’s workers live alongside the low-lying canals that are used for flood mitigation. While these large settlements are built against the solid and protective canal walls, because they are informal they don’t have power, water or waste disposal services.
As a result, residents have little alternative but to dump their rubbish into the canal or in the streets around the canal, which blocks the drainage system used to expel floodwater.
In addition, unregistered inhabitants are hardest hit when there is flooding. They are generally poor and have little or no access to healthcare, often work in unsafe conditions and live in cramped, insecure housing. Many don’t have family networks to assist when the deluge inevitably comes.
WHERE AUSTRALIA COMES IN
No one wants to live surrounded by their own waste, and the associated vermin and health problems it leads to. Looking at this through a resilience lens, by dealing with this waste management problem the lives of Bangkok’s most vulnerable residents will be improved each and every day.
An effective strategy would reduce the potential impact of floods and associated hazards, resulting in a better quality of life for everyone in Bangkok.
AECOM has been talking to Thai decision-makers about stresses on a city being ‘shock amplifiers’. Shocks are inevitable, but when you have existing stresses, they amplify both the likelihood, and the consequences, of the shocks.
Australia has some great examples of successfully creating behavioural change so that stresses are reduced. We are a global exemplar in terms of our citizen engagement around littering and, through various means, we have created a culture where littering is not socially acceptable.
Exporting that expertise into Southeast Asia to help them to leapfrog some of the developmental steps that we had to wade through in Australia can make a huge difference, particularly as they continue down their paths of urban densification and development.
Influenced by the Australian experience, we have recommended a three-pronged approach as part of our resilience strategy work with the city of Bangkok.
First, the infrastructure needs to be there – there is no point in trying to effect behavioural change, if there is no viable alternative to the status quo.
Often people living in poorer areas lead busy lives, working very long days, and need a convenient system that is aligned to their lifestyle. AECOM believes that it is essential for communities to be involved in the design of the system, so that the solution takes into consideration how they live.
After an appropriate co-designed infrastructure network is put into place, the time is right to ensure that it is used. As part of the resilience strategy, AECOM is recommending a program that communicates why incorrect waste disposal is detrimental.
While setting up behavioural change programs are useful, we also recognise that many people living in Bangkok’s more vulnerable communities aren’t Thai – they’re from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam, among other nations.
Therefore, these programs must take into account that many people cannot read Thai and may also be illiterate in their native language. As part of the strategy we will suggest that communications are easy to understand and highlight the wide-ranging benefits of behavioural change.
The third element of enacting change in Bangkok is enforcement. There is no evidence that a fine system would be an appropriate response; rather we suggest a community-based adherence expectation.
In the case of Australia’s anti-littering program, people were not being fined en masse, but rather the message was conveyed that it was socially unacceptable to litter. What we are proposing for Bangkok is community-based enforcement, where the elders in the community lead by example, but with government support.
THE BANGKOK RESPONSE
The BMA is incredibly focused on vulnerable people and we have feedback from community members who say that they feel well-served by the Government. However, the Bangkok Government still needs a long- term solution to minimise the amount of money it is spending on collecting rubbish from the canals.
We have played a facilitative role in the process and are helping the Thai Government to ask the right questions. We are also communicating best practice examples from outside of Thailand, which they can be influenced by and build upon. By doing this we are supporting and challenging the Government to come up with self-driven solutions.
While the Australian experience has provided a blueprint for a ‘Bangkok resilience solution’, we can also learn from this process. Australia is a nation of migrants and has a vast number of people arriving from other parts of the world, many of whom may not have an understanding of our waste management regimes.
A high proportion of Australia’s waste management services are run by private subcontractors. We must ask ourselves hard questions around whether we are engaging with our non-English speaking new residents well enough. We also have people settling into our community who have lived in refugee camps for years, if not their whole lives, so we mustn’t take for granted that our systems make sense to them.
It’s important that our corporate waste managers think about that and how to engage with communities, and even migrant communities, to create those social norms. The waste management industry has a very important role to play in increasing the quality of life of individuals and to help them prepare for shock events.We are all on this journey together and it’s important that we communicate with each other about resilience best practice while understanding more deeply how interconnected our cities, and their services, are.
Will Symons is the national practice leader, Sustainability and Resiliance, AECOM.