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Thailand's top disaster expert once foretold the 2004 tsunami. Now, he says the nation's capital will be submerged by 2030.
GREATER BANGKOK – High tide brings a rush of salt water into this seaside city, where sewers overflow many mornings and flood the streets.
While taxis slosh through filthy puddles, dozens of rusty pipes and generators begin pumping floodwaters back into the bay. And by late morning, the pools have receded through gutter grates and the roads are dry.
Flooding is already a fact of life in Samut Prakan, this urban port roughly 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Bangkok proper. While many Thais shrug off the flooding as an inconvenience, the country’s top disaster specialist sees doom in the rising waters.
“Right now, nothing is being done,” says Meteorologist Smith Dharmasaroja, head of Thailand’s National Disaster Warning Center. “And if nothing is ever done? Bangkok will be flooded.”
For an animated look at Bangkok's wetter future, click here:
By 2030, much of Bangkok will lie under 1.5 meters (5 feet) of seawater, Smith says. It’s a claim made doubly ominous by his history of predicting natural disasters.
In the late 1990s, he predicted that a tsunami would batter Thailand’s coast. Thousands will die, he said, if the government doesn’t install an early warning system to alerting tourists and coastal dwellers.
In 2004, this prophecy was tragically vindicated. Ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra helped pull Smith out of retirement to direct the newly founded disaster warning center. To this day, his small office building is outfitted with massive wall maps, bays of monitors and red-alert hotlines — just in case a tsunami strikes again.
Smith’s attention, however, is now fixed on floods.
Polar ice melting has the world’s sea level rising at more than one-tenth of an inch per year, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Bangkok’s steel and concrete buildings, which weigh down on soft clay underneath, are causing the capital to sink more than 3 inches per year on average, Smith says. And many natural flood buffers, such as coastal mangroves, were replaced with cement long ago.
Those factors will conspire, Smith says, to flood Bangkok with seawater. By his math, the low-lying city will take on more than .75 meters (2.5 feet) of water every 10 years. Along Bangkok’s posh riverfront — a promenade of deluxe apartments and hotels — city workers are already dispatched to brace the shoreline with sandbags. “This is not a solution,” Smith says. “It’s temporary and it’s a waste of time.”
At Samut Prakan, practically walking distance from Bangkok’s city limits, riverside pavilions are draped with ugly rubber tubing. The bay view is spoiled by gas-powered generators and their corroded pipes, which gush floodwaters over the plaza’s railing.
The city floods a little almost every morning at high tide, said Sarawut Kankamneard, a glassmaker who lives nearby. “When tide is high, water pressure builds up,” he said. “It floods the sewers and runs into the city.”
To hear Smith tell it, this is doomsday in its infancy. In 2100, by his projections, Bangkok will be Atlantis. He is calling for a massive dike spanning the Gulf of Thailand, a roughly $2.8 billion USD project by his estimation. But to save Bangkok, he insists, construction must begin almost immediately.
Biblical as Smith’s predications may be, flooding is not on Thailand’s national agenda. To many politicians and scientists, Smith remains a nag. To Bangkok business interests protecting the value of their riverfront property, he is an outright threat. And while no one disagrees that Bangkok is sinking, other meteorologists strike a less urgent tone.
The urban coast outside Bangkok, dotted with thousands of piers and factories, will likely go underwater in coming decades, said Anond Snidvongs, director of the Southeast Asia Regional Research Center. But the sea will flow and recede with Thailand’s rainy and dry seasons, he says, leaving the area uninhabitable for only about 60 days a year.
“It won’t be a permanent sea level rise, like we’re in Neverland,” he says.
Still, Anond says a slow retreat strategy is much more feasible than a huge dike, which will disturb the environment. Building the dike, he says, would exceed the cost of a government-sponsored relocation drive for families living on the bay.
“Don’t try to save the shoreline,” Anond says. “It’s beyond hope.”
Despite his cachet earned from predicting Thailand’s tsunami, Smith remains a minor-league public figure. Thailand’s government is fragile and struggling to solve immediate problems, let alone crises that will haunt some future administration. Smith knows politicians are unlikely to adopt his cause and build his dike.
“All my life, I’ve worked for the people,” Smith says. “And I’m attacked.”
Even in Greater Bangkok, where seawater already runs in the streets, the flooding is tolerated. With barges and navy vessels bobbing on the horizon, locals strolling along the waterfront sidestep the tubes that flush invading waters back into the bay.
“It’s actually nicer now,” said Sarawut, the glassmaker. “If you could see what’s underneath the water, it’s all garbage anyway.”
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