From satellite images and maps, the mesmerizing meanders of the Chao Phraya river and its many splintering canals appear to dominate the landscape of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. To metropolitan Bangkok’s 10 million inhabitants, the city’s surrounding waterways have always held an intimate role in cultural and spiritual life. The Thai word for river is Mae Naam, which literally translates to Mother Water, signifying a deep traditional commitment. To this day, the city remains reliant on its extensive waterways as a means of getting around. Larger water boats along Bangkok’s main arterial waterways move (albeit sporadically) up and down the river for the paltry fee of 15 baht (about 48 cents), while smaller boats along the less trodden canals will set one back only 7 baht (22 cents). Unfortunately, the city once labeled as the “Venice of the East” has certainly lost its dependence on its grand waterways. The city has expanded into the rural expanse, and canals were filled in to create more commercial land around Thailand’s main city. In fact, the very road I was born on was a canal fifty years ago. Now, it’s littered with bars oriented towards young adults and modernizing apartment buildings.
Bangkok’s unprecedented buildup and its shift away from the surrounding water may be the city’s fatal flaw. Bangkok is sinking, and doing so at a faster rate than Venice.
Originally swampland, most of Bangkok is built upon a level of weakened clay, insufficient in maintaining the weight of the city. As taller buildings proliferate around the capital, the sheer weight of the city above it will cause it to sink faster and faster. Another prominent cause of this sinking is the depletion of large aquifer sitting underneath Bangkok. This is water that can be pulled up through the use of a well that lies beneath the city. In the case of Bangkok, the use of groundwater has gone seriously under-regulated, at a rate that is more than twice the amount that can be safely removed. Even Bangkok’s large brothels and bath houses are being accused of partaking in Bangkok’s sinking, being accused of illegal siphoning off large amounts of water from these aquifers to cut costs.
This phenomenon is causing Bangkok to sink at a rate of 2 centimeters (0.8 inches), per year in some parts of the city. While this may not seem like a lot, the tangible effects of living in a sinking city are starting to show. Sagging walls and clear cracks in construction are all becoming visible marks along canal side districts of Bangkok. But the more obvious sign of this is frequent flooding. This manifests in daily life through the flooding of large arterial roads, making the already heavy traffic somehow worse. The worst of it, however, is larger-scale flooding, paralyzing the city for weeks on end. This happened in 2011, when over 800 lives were lost and Thailand’s production was cut by almost half.
Bangkok isn’t the only city experiencing this newfound “sinking” feeling. Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia and another important commercial hub in Southeast Asia, lies almost 40 percent below sea level. Parts of the city that lie next to the ocean are now sinking at a rate of 2 inches per year. Putting the two cities side by side, it’s not difficult to find similarities: polluted rivers, poorly monitored aquifers, and the thickening metropolis contributing to a “heavier” city. Jakarta marks another city experiencing growing pains and poor governance of the matter. Officials estimate that without sweeping reform in the next decade, much of the city’s dense northern half could be submerged.
And it’s not just Jakarta and Bangkok. In Southern Asia, Manila, Saigon, and Dhaka are all sinking, too. The rate at which the sea level is rising has contributed to this new phenomenon. Indeed, in the next 20 years, large cities may become uninhabitable, prompting mass-scale evacuations. In 80 years’ time, the entire island nation of the Maldives could be under water.
At least in the case of Bangkok, a few efforts have been undertaken to alleviate flooding and the city’s impending doom. Thailand’s National Reform Council proposed the construction of a $14.3 billion sea wall to protect the city from flooding. Some have argued for the building of an underground canal, taking on the function of the canals previously paved over, to alleviate the risk of flooding. But whatever actions Bangkok and other similar cities take, it needs to come now, and it needs to be groundbreaking. With Bangkok’s impending doom estimated as early as 2030, some have even called to move the capital away from the city. However, that surely doesn’t mitigate the potential economic and social calamity of losing Bangkok.
For Thai people, this can be seen as an almost sadistic irony. Many Thai celebrations and traditions are rooted in water. One example is Songkran, a three-day long festival in April that signals the Thai new year. People from all over the country erupt in a giant water fight while also partaking in Buddhist rituals. The Loi Krathong celebrations in November are designed to give thanks to the water gods, usually marked by floating small floats of coconut shells into lakes, rivers and other bodies of water. Ultimately, though, there are ways we have underestimated and abused the power of our water.
As someone who was born and raised in Bangkok, it’s difficult to imagine an empty Bangkok. Yet due to particularly frequent flooding, it’s certainly not difficult to imagine the city under water. It is time for the people and governments of these sinking cities to take notice and action. Some of the world’s greatest cities could, including Bangkok, become historical footnotes.
Tobias Wertime is a member of the Class of 2020 and can be reached at email@example.com.