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Tue 1 Nov 2011 03:22 PM

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Thailand's water crisis is a bad omen

Bangkok is paying the price for overdevelopment and urbanization, says William Pesek

Thailand's water crisis is a bad omen
Thai residents board a truck to transport them back home along the flooded streets in the Thonburi

As the streets of Bangkok fill with water, much of the
world's attention is on Yingluck Shinawatra. The Thai prime minister's unsteady
handling of the mounting crisis is inviting unkind comparisons with US
President George W. Bush's bungling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and
rightfully so.

Yet an even more vital story is at play here as monsoon
rains devastate Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy: how Asia is paying a
price for overdevelopment and the forces of climate change, and a fast-growing
one at that.

Thailand’s worst floods in half a century have swamped about
10,000 factories north of Bangkok, imperiling businesses, shopping malls and
apartment blocks, and forcing foreign executives to consider leaving the city.
Companies including Toyota Motor and Hitachi are implementing evacuation plans.
Richard Han, chief executive officer of Hana Microelectronics, is absolutely
right when he says “Thailand’s credibility is on the line here."

The threat to global supply chains and food prices -
especially rice - will reverberate around the globe, crimping gross domestic
product in neighbouring Asia and corporate profits the world over. Even more
focus should be on the wisdom of massive urbanization flows that cluster
millions in low-lying cities prone to flooding.

Thailand is a perfect example of the dangerous convergence
of high population density and extreme and erratic weather patterns that
scientists link with increased carbon emissions. For generations, Thailand's
placement along the Mekong River and the fertile land it created was considered
a blessing. Severe floods are changing this basic calculus.

Storms, typhoons and floods are becoming more numerous and
severe at a time when global sea levels are rising. A city of vast canals,
Thailand was once the Venice of Asia. One wonders if history will repeat itself
for Bangkok's 12 million people, who will soon travel more by boat than buses
and motorbikes. Similar fates may befall Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Manila,
Mumbai, Shanghai and Tokyo in the decades ahead.

It's entirely unclear what can be done about all this.
Urbanization will continue - in Asia, the cities are where the jobs are. And
governments are foundering in efforts to reduce their carbon footprints. What
is clear is that leaders should get as used to water in the streets as they are
protesters.

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GD 8 years ago

Well, you have to go back to the 1940s for flooding as bad as this years. The once in a 50 or 100 year rains will cause flooding in many cities around the world built on tidal rivers, including London.

Thailand has many dams built up country, but water was not released in time to store the monsoon rains, so they failed to be as effective as possible. A politically divided country and a novice goverment probably dont help things either.

Of course, tidal barriers on the ChaoPraya and increased capacity on the canals could help, but a more effective crisis plan and management would prove more beneficial.

Economically, its a balancing act. Do factories accept the 1 in 50 year risk or crisis mismangement, and reap the benefits of a large, relatively skilled and lower cost workforce? Or do they demand much improved infrastructure, but then face higher costs as they would likely be liable for additional taxes to fund the work? I predict slight improvements, but nothing major.

telcoguy 8 years ago

yep, probably the issues could have been handled better but at the core this is a typical tradeoff situation.
Intensity of flooding/earthquakes and a number of natural and man made incidents are known to follow a power law. You can build a system to resist a flood (or an earthquake) of intensity X that happens on average every 50 years. Or you can build it to survive one of intensity 2X that happens every 100 years. Every engineer, and even a few economists, know that.
Of course everybody would like the strongest one, but the cost can be 10 times. In the end it is a matter of budget/priorities
And of course the one in 50 years event may happen 6 weeks after the bridge or the dam is finished... then everybody complains. But it is probably going to be cheaper to build it again than to build it to the higher standards. the human casualties are the cost of the savings.