I live in Bangkok, Thailand’s exciting, sweaty capital city. A fantastic urban mega jungle containing at least 12 million people, some of the best food in the world and sky scrapers as far as the eye can see. Construction is booming and everything is accelerating skywards and outwards. Office buildings, gigantic air conditioned shopping malls and high rise luxury apartments promising a sexier life populate the grey skyline as it becomes denser and the blue sky harder to spot.
Bangkok began to grow rapidly in the 1970’s during boom time and this was encouraged and celebrated because it created many positive outcomes for the city such as luxury housing, jobs, increased tourism, economic growth, entertainment and foreign investment. Today, in a city that is already doused in concrete, the easiest way to tackle land scarcity and create wealth is by creating space in the sky…the sky is the limit right? But can Bangkok support this heaving concrete megalopolis for the next 50 to 100 years? Evidence suggests maybe not.
To put it bluntly, Bangkok is sinking. Climate Change experts report that if no action is taken to protect the city, most of Bangkok will be below sea level within 50 years – more alarming estimates state that this could occur as early as 2030. This is unsurprising for a city that was built upon muddy swamp land 1.5m above sea level and which is currently sinking at a rate of between 1.5 and 5cm per year. Combined with ominous rising sea levels, we could potentially have a Waterworld situation on our hands in no time.
Bangkok had an unfortunate sneak preview of what submersion would be like during the infamous floods of late 2011. The widespread disaster throughout the country resulted in over 600 deaths and what the World Bank estimated to be US$45.7 billion in economic losses. This cute animation outlines this journey of the water in more detail. Even though Bangkok has historically received annual heavy downpours, recent rapid development, particularly of extensive industrial complexes, has built over floodplain and low-lying areas which previously absorbed, retained, and slowed the passage of water during heavy downpours and flood events. Having impermeable buildings and infrastructure in these areas means that the water now has to find somewhere else to drain to, leading to intensifying water volume and velocity in downstream areas and consequently, devastating urban flooding.
This development has also seen the filling in or alteration of natural canals and river systems with the Chao Phraya Basin, reducing the capacity of the natural drainage network to effectively and efficiently empty water into the Gulf of Thailand. Poor water management before the floods in late 2011 also meant that these waterways were already flowing near capacity before the heavy rains hit. A legacy of deforestation in Thailand may have also contributed to silting of waterways and dams, further reducing the capacity of these waterways, leading to bigger and more intense flooding events. Without forward thinking, urban building management and respect for the land and its natural drainage system, Bangkok will no doubt encounter similar and potentially more devastating floods and natural disasters in the coming years, particularly under a looming changing climate. It seems that the concept of working in harmony with the natural flow of the water and position on land has taken a back seat to the dollar signs and quick fixes that have been blinding the decision makers.
Who benefits from such exponential growth of a city this size? I don’t think the homeless families I see on the sidewalk have, nor the street vendors who had their livelihoods ruined during the floods. It is the already rich and powerful who benefit the most from growth of a city of this magnitude. The economic gains from private land development, such as the millions made by sitting on an empty block of prime real estate for 5 years before building 25 floors of luxury apartments, are almost exclusively won by private investors, not the wider community. This is a flaw in the tax system.
Without appropriate Land Taxation in place, the community rarely sees any of the baht that their own income and other taxes have made possible. This is especially true in Thailand, as those in power do not always pay their fair share. In 2008 Thaksin Shinawatra, former businessman and Prime Minister, was sentenced to 2 years prison for abusing his power and assisting his wife in illegally purchasing 4 plots of public land worth over US$70 million from the Financial Institution Development Fund. His wife was also charged with tax evasion to the amount of US$15 million back in 1997 – during the Asian Financial Crisis.
This is just one example of unjust land acquisitions and abuse of power, but it happens across the globe in the majority of societies, and is especially harmful in nations who already have a significantly unequal distribution of wealth and land. Lack of transparency and accountability in Thailand is a big, contentious issue and creates a dangerous situation where it is possible for those in power to make rash decisions about land management whilst being blinded by the dollar signs attached. This is important to understand. If more people did, they wouldn’t be able to get away with it.
These scenarios are difficult to change for a variety of cultural and economic reasons, but a fair Land Tax system would mean that the wealth made in these situations is shared with the wider community instead of only making its way into the heavy pockets of some. The system of checks and balances would then be reinforced.
There are many factors contributing to Bangkok’s land/natural disasters/sustainability issues and I am not pretending to have the solutions, but the common theme throughout is mismanagement of land, whether it be through corruption, greed or just lack of intelligent long-term land use planning and management.
Land is the most valuable resource we have. Bangkok shows how we can build bridges, skyscrapers and transportation to accommodate increasing numbers of urbanites on the land. We can even promise to pledge billions of dollars to attempt to reduce the effects of global warming. But we cannot make sinking land rise – nor can we urbanites survive underwater, so it is time to give land the respect it deserves and demonstrate this through a Land Tax system and evidence based, sustainable land use planning and management.