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Bangkok Could Soon Be Underwater

The Italian city of Venice and the American city of New Orleans, Louisiana are slowly sinking. So is Bangkok, home to about 10 million people.

Officials in the city and scientists say they do not know how long people will be able to continue living in the Thai capital.

Thailand’s military rulers are considering action. The National Reform Council wants the government to form a committee to deal with warnings that Bangkok could be permanently underwater many years from now.

The Saen Saeb canal was built in Bangkok in the late 1830s. In a neighborhood near the waterway, walkways are breaking up. Walls on homes, small businesses and an Islamic center appear to be bending. The area is sinking about two centimeters a year. That is two times the average rate for the rest of Bangkok.

“I don’t know what to do,” says Vijitri Puangsiri. She has lived in the neighborhood for 44 years. She asks: “Who will help us? I don’t know.”

Her home needs to be repaired every year because of the sinking ground. The walkway in front of her century-old house where she operates a small restaurant must also be repeatedly repaired.

Somsak Kongpeeng is one of her neighbors, and a community volunteer.

“If you travel on the canal boats, you can see how this is all hollow,” he says. “The buildings are sinking because they were not built on solid foundations.”

He jokes that if we come back to see him again in 20 years, the water level will be almost as high as his head. But he is also partly serious. That might be only a small overstatement in a city that is, on average, just two meters above sea level. Many homes and other structures were built on soft clay.

Observers say two reasons for the sinking are a rising sea level and too much pumping of groundwater. Another reason, they say, is the decision by developers to build so many high-rise homes and offices. Developers keep building these high-rises because they earn a lot of money doing so. This kind of development worries those who are concerned about the rising water levels.

Sucharit Koontanakulvong heads the Water Resources System research Unit at Chulalongborn University.

“If we don’t do anything, everybody will lose. Because if the land itself is sinking, the value of land will also go down.”

He and others predict that, if no action is taken, repeated and long-term flooding will begin in the next 20 years. Such floods could last for two or three months, and would cause serious damage to Bangkok’s economy.

The most recent major flooding happened during the rainy season in 2011. Thirteen million people were affected. More than 800 died. The World Bank says the flooding four years ago caused more than $45 billion in damage to the Thai economy.

Last month, the Bangkok Post newspaper published an editorial called “Stop the City Sinking.” The editorial said that, even with the recent floods and new warnings, most Thais seem unconcerned. The newspaper called for the expansion of the city to be stopped. And it called for a complete halt of groundwater pumping.

There are also calls to build seawalls to protect the city, which already suffers from frequent flooding. Such a project would cost billions of dollars. And even if the walls are built, nature could still eventually reclaim everything people have built in some unprotected low-lying areas.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

VOA Asia Correspondent Steve Herman reported this story from Bangkok. George Grow adapted it for VOA Learning English. Christopher Jones-Cruise was the editor.


Words in This Story

canal – n. a long, narrow waterway used to supply water to fields and crops; also used by small boats

hollow – adj. empty

foundation(s) – n. a solid structure that supports a building

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