Flood-proofing Bangkok could force canal dwellers out

By Jonah Fisher
BBC News, Bangkok

media captionChuang Pungsati: 'If it floods again I'm going to be here'

Nearly three months after the worst of the flooding, life for most of Bangkok's 10 million residents has returned to normal.

The water has drained away and on many buildings only a dirty high-tide mark remains as a reminder of the sodden weeks of late 2011.

The immediate crisis over, thoughts have turned to how the Thai capital can better protect itself in future.

Billion of dollars have been promised by the authorities and plans are being hastily drawn up for huge walls, vast tunnels and even the diversion of the Chao Phraya river that flows through Bangkok.

This was not the first time Thailand has suffered from catastrophic flooding but in the past most floods have hit rural areas. This time it was different.

Foreign investors worried

Instead of fields, it was Thailand's key industrial districts to the north of Bangkok that suddenly found themselves underwater.

Damage from the floods cost global companies hundreds of millions of dollars.

Questions were immediately asked about whether Thailand remained an attractive regional business hub and a safe long-term investment destination.

"Foreign investors are affected so they won't let the government just forget and get away with it," says Luxmon Attapich, a senior economist with the Asian Development Bank.

"They will keep pressuring the government to make sure that proper flood and water management is on the way."

But this new sense of "something must be done" is not good news for everyone. For the squatter communities who live alongside Bangkok's waterways, it threatens their very existence.

The need for water to quickly flow through and out of the city is now seen as one of the key lessons learnt from last year.

Canal dwellers blamed

That means clearing rubbish and obstructions from the canals. Unfortunately for Chuang Pungsati, that could well mean her house.

image captionThe Thai authorities say the homes on the Bang Bua canal are part of the problem

Jutting on crooked stilts several metres into the Bang Bua canal Mrs Chuang's wooden home is built illegally on land alongside and above the water. Not surprisingly it was submerged as the floods swept though.

Three months on, the 64-year-old has moved back, but is still surrounded by damp debris and broken appliances.

"Nothing works anymore," she said with a shake of her head, pointing to the fridge television and her husband's mobile phone.

Plans to move people on from the grotty sides of the Bang Bua have fresh impetus but are not new.

For the last nine years a government-backed project has been trying to convince the estimated 6,000 households who live along Bangkok's watersways to give up their homes and allow canal areas to be redeveloped.

Some have agreed, trading greater living space for the security of living somewhere with legal status.

Others like Mrs Chuang and her neighbours have resisted.

"The floods have nothing to do with us. We live above the canal - we don't make it flood," said Mrs Chuang.

"They say if we don't go they're going to demolish our home, but we've been here 32 years."

image captionSamorn Phungchoo lives with her mother and 15 other relatives

One hundred metres down the canal path Samorn Phungchoo is in a slightly better position.

The 48-year-old's wooden shop and house is on higher ground so it is not considered an obstruction to the canal. As well as containing the family business selling snacks and drinks, it is also home to 16 of Samorn's relatives.

But the authorities still want to pull it down. They want to redevelop the plot of land legally and that means Samorn getting a smaller, but legal piece of it, and allowing others to settle alongside.

"We are not squatters. It used to be a field here and we came to develop the land as a community," she says. "We won't all fit in a smaller plot."

For now the Bangkok authorities say they want to avoid clearing the canals by force. But threatening leaflets have been circulated in the area and the squatters say they can feel the pressure growing.

Long-term planning

Clearing the canals of obstacles will only be part of any long term solution. At a press conference last week Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said 350bn baht ($11bn) was being made available.

"In the short term, the goal is to decrease the level of damage from possible floods in 2012," she said.

"In the long term, the goal is to improve the flood management system in an integrated and sustainable manner."

Plans currently being rushed through should see trees being planted along the Chao Phraya river and the building of several new reservoirs and dams.

More ambitiously, huge artificial waterways are being considered north of Bangkok to divert water to the east and west of the city.

There are also plans for a new water management body to be put in place to better co-ordinate the response.

Time is not on Thailand's side. With the rainy season due to start in May and reservoirs already reported to be close to full ministers are under pressure to show results.

"We have to move quickly. This cannot wait," Thailand's Finance Minister Kittirat Na Ranong said.

The fear for the squatters of the Bang Bua community is that they may get caught up in the rush.

"If they really force us out I will fight to the end," said Chuang Pungsati with a shake of her head. "But I think we can talk. They won't kill us."

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