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Monsoon City : For Sinking Feeling, Try Bangkok

July 23, 1986|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | Times Staff Writer

BANGKOK, Thailand — London fog, Los Angeles smog, Bangkok floods--some images a city can't shake. Here, it's rising water, as certain as the monsoon rains.

This year's first flood came in May, a freak early storm. Nearly 10 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, buckets even in a city that annually averages more than 58 inches.

The heavy rains of the southwest monsoon, blowing out of the Bay of Bengal, begin early next month, and the scenes of the short-lived May flood were a preview of what's to come, the best and worst in this city of 6 million.

Groups of "volunteers" happily worked the streets, pushing stalled cars to the side of the road--for a price. Tang Ngeg Eng, a Bangkok matron, said her dealer charged 20 baht (about 75 cents) for a sandbag during the flood, triple the dry-season cost.

A Certain Cheerfulness

But most Thais made do with a certain cheerfulness, as long as their cars and buses plowed through the flooded intersections and planed down the main streets.

Secretaries and shop girls hiked their skirts and, shoes in hand, waded from high ground to high ground as they walked to work. And no mere flood could keep a Thai from his mid-morning snack. Diners at sidewalk food stalls sat sipping noodle soup, their bare feet washed by six inches of water.

For children, the city became a watery playground. For some of their fathers, it provided a family meal. They cast their nets along main thoroughfares for fish floated free of canals and park ponds.

But that was just a two-day flood. Worse will come. In 1983, parts of the city were flooded from August through New Year's Day. Tempers soared, property damage was heavy, disease was a problem.

Is Bangkok ready for another flood of that duration?

$37-Million Budget

"The budget (for flood control) was $37 million over the last three years," Chamlong Srimuang, the city's governor, said in a recent interview. "Most of that has been spent on pumps, dikes, canal dredging and so on. We have cleaned sewers all over Bangkok.

"But those measures were to deal with rainfall of only up to 100 millimeters (about four inches) a day."

Although 58 inches is far from the heaviest annual rainfall in the world, the nature of Bangkok's flooding problems is unique. The city is as flat as a pan, and it is sinking below sea level in several areas. Here, the flood waters simply rise in place, without the smashing force of an American river that has broken its bonds. Most flood-related deaths in the city are electrocutions caused by slipshod wiring.

The long-term problem is threefold: rainfall, the sinking of land and the level of the Chao Phraya, the river that drains one-third of Thailand and courses through the capital. When runoff swells the river and the city's canals, and tidal forces from the nearby Gulf of Thailand check their flow, water fills Bangkok like a saucer.

That's just what Gen. Chakri, founder of the present royal dynasty, had in mind 204 years ago when he made Bangkok his capital. With the outlying districts flooded for many months each year, he figured, his capital would be safe from attack by the Burmese enemy.

Canals Disappear

The city itself had open land to soak up the rains, and the canals, or klongs, were dug to carry away the excess and provide avenues of transport. But in recent decades, the city's population has mushroomed. Canals have been filled to make roads for cars and trucks, and small pipes have been installed to discharge water.

Meanwhile, developers of industrial and residential complexes dug artesian wells for their water supplies. That has lowered the water table and caused the land to subside. Areas of Bangkok housing 3.5 million people are sinking at a dangerous rate, up to nearly four inches a year.

Anuchit Sodsathit, deputy director of the city's department of drainage and sewerage, said that under new regulations "within five years, we can stop most of the deep-well pumping," but even if that action slows the sinking, the damage has been done. Authorities say the entire city may be under sea level by the turn of the century.

Pumps and Dikes

Meanwhile, Gov. Chamlong admits, "we don't have any excellent plans" for long-term flood protection. The main effort has involved pumps and polder systems, in which dikes help to reclaim land. In the future, perhaps, a second channel west of the city may be dug for the river, what Anuchit calls "Chao Phraya II."

At the Prakanong station, with 35 pumps the city's largest, superintendent Prapot Phangmala showed a visitor the operation. The big pumps and a series of water gates lie across an important canal. As the canal rises in heavy rains, the pumps are used to speed the flow into the Chao Phraya. A work force of 100 keeps the pumps working and, using long-handle rakes, clears debris from the entrance.

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