The 2011 Thai floods: An urban political ecology analysis

Danny Marks
University of Sydney, Australia

In the second half of 2011, Bangkok experienced its worst flooding in decades. Overall, the floods killed over 800 people, affected millions, and cost the economy at least US$45 billion. Much of this devastation occurred in Bangkok and its surroundings.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawtra, her Cabinet members, and some senior bureaucrats blamed the external forces of nature and climate change for the floods. For example, Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Surasawadi stated that Thais “must continue living with the flood for now,” and that they “would have to accept that climate change is occurring.” Deputy Prime Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong declared that the flooding “has to be the result of climate change and global warming.” Blaming nature or climate change, rather than governance failures as the main cause of floods not only absolves the government of any responsibility for causing or worsening the extent of the flooding but also leads to the belief that floods should be controlled and managed mainly by implementing structural measures to control water and protect populations from water.

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The rhetoric used by Thai national leaders depoliticizes this and other disasters. By stating that unlucky victims happened to be in the “wrong place at the wrong time,” this discourse “conceal[s] the socio-economic processes that place vulnerable populations at risk and consequently, such processes are not regarded as policy issues because ‘natural’ hazards become the policy problem to solve.” This misplaced analysis can lead policy makers to propose engineering and structural solutions which often do not address underlying vulnerabilities and can have a number of negative repercussions. For example, engineering designs and operational planning norms are usually based on historically expected flood returns, but the long-term impacts of climate change among other factors may cause these estimations to be too low. Likewise, dependence on flood-control infrastructure creates a false sense of security, which suggests that changing the built environment through land use planning, ecosystem protection, and improving flood-response capacity are not needed. This can lead to increased losses in urban areas when events exceed the projects’ design capacity of engineering projects.

I disagree therefore with blaming the 2011 floods solely on nature and climate change. There have been years where it rained more and the country faced more tropical cyclones than it did in 2011, but the magnitude of flooding was less severe in those years than it was in 2011. Furthermore, the city’s western and northern outskirts were heavily flooded for many weeks while the inner part remained dry despite the areas lying at similar elevations. These phenomena suggest that this disaster was not natural but a compound disaster, a result of both natural and social processes, the latter of which occurred not only in 2011 but also beforehand, during the disaster’s incubation period. These social processes arose largely due to poor disaster governance in the urban transition of Thailand’s Central Plains. They include mismanagement and the failure of infrastructure, uncoordinated land use change, land subsidence, and the filling in of canals

In response to the problems arising from the aforementioned approach, I argue that we should use an urban political ecology (UPE) approach, which rejects this separation of the urban and the environment. This approach views cities as hybrids and historical products of human-nature interaction.  It rejects the separation of nature and city, saying that humans have transformed nature in cities. By viewing cities as landscapes of power, UPE raises the question of how power determines who gain access to resources in the city, such as why some urban communities are located where they are. So when considering flooding, spaces of vulnerability and exposure to hazards are uneven.  The poor and less powerful often live in low-lying lands or those close to rivers – they cannot afford to live in other areas.  Those lands that are best-protected from hazards, such as areas protected by dykes or in high locations, are normally occupied by the elite and powerful.  Also, the state is crucial actor because it is the one who normally invests in flood risk reduction. In many countries today, the elite have been able to use the state to protect themselves at the expense of others. Moreover, floods occur not only because of heavy rainfall but also because of the long term impacts of environmentally unsustainable development projects. Thus, where floods occur, who they affect, and their magnitude are a result of political and socio-economic processes.

I will briefly apply this theory to the 2011 floods in Bangkok. Founded in 1782, Bangkok’s space and topography makes it vulnerable to flooding. However, at first it was a water-based city with canals, like Venice, and had amphibious dwellings. People either lived in houseboats or in elevated houses along the canals and river.  The main form of transport was by boat. Rice paddies served as drainage areas. The city had a high resilience to flooding.

Figure 1: Maps of the Chao Phraya Delta in the 1960s (Source: Roachanakanan, 2012)

However, starting in the 1890s, roads soon replaced canals and land-based houses. The metropolitan area ballooned rapidly after World War II: from 67 km2 in the 1950s to 683 km2 by 2007. It grew outwards in a ribbon-like fashion along the three major transportation routes. The city’s urbanization was haphazard and largely unregulated. Development was “influenced as much by ‘who owns land where’ as by any sound urban planning principles.”[i] Until 1992, Bangkok was probably the largest city in the world without an official development plan.

This pattern of unregulated and sprawled-out urban development had a number of negative effects on the physical environment and increased the city’s overall vulnerability to flooding. Filling hundreds of canals to make way for roads and buildings and the heavy concretization of the land’s surface increased the amount of run-off.  Over-pumping groundwater by factories caused extensive land subsidence which debilitated flood protection. The city’s ground has already sunk more than one meter. The illegal construction in floodways and green zones by real estate developers harmfully encroached upon natural drainage channels and flood storage areas.  The most powerful groups in Thai society, such as real estate developers, construction companies, and local politicians, profited the most from these activities while changes to the physical environment of Bangkok made all of those living there more vulnerable to floods.

Figure 2: Groundwater Pumping Rate in the Bangkok Plains from 1955–2004 (Source: Phien-Wej et al., 2006, 191)

This increased vulnerability turned into high losses and damage in 2011. During that year, the large amount of water that flowed into Bangkok and its surrounding areas would have been much less without political interference. Numerous academics and NGOs believe that Banharn Silapa-archa, a well-connected former prime minister and veteran politician, used his connections within the Royal Irrigation Department and commanded them not to open the water gates to Suphanburi, his home province in order to allow farmers there enough time to harvest their crops. Statistics of the amount of water flow suggest that the RID did not open the three water gates in the western side of the Chao Phraya to their maximum capacity until the beginning of October.

Figure 3: Water Flowing through Chao Phraya River in Nakhon Sawan and Makhamtao, Palatep, and Bramtau water gates on the western side of the river (Source: Poapongsakorn and Meethom 2013)
Figure 3: Water Flowing through Chao Phraya River in Nakhon Sawan and Makhamtao, Palatep, and Bramtau water gates on the western side of the river (Source: Poapongsakorn and Meethom, 2013)

Not fully opening these gates caused more water to flow downstream. Additionally, the government mismanaged the Sirikit and Bhumibol dams by storing too much water earlier in the year, meaning that it could not store the floodwater later in the year.

Following months of heavy rain and the release of water from Bhumibol and Sirikit dams, a massive run-off slowly swept towards the capital in October. In response, the government erected huge sandbag barriers, closed water gates, and diverted water to protect the city’s central districts. For example, in mid-October, after the government had closed a water gate between its northern neighbor, Pathum Thani and the city of Bangkok, the level of water was almost two meters lower on the Bangkok side. While this scheme kept the center dry, those outside of the center heavily bore this cost: these walls and water gates held up the floodwaters in the northern and western areas, submerging these areas for weeks. This decision generated significant discontent among local residents in these areas, who had seen on the news that the inner city was still dry but their area had been flooded for weeks. People in these areas bore heavy financial costs and dozens died, mostly from drowning or being electrocuted. One elderly woman in a low-income community in Don Muang, a northern district of Bangkok, believed that the “the government unfairly divided people. People in the inner city are big people and big rich companies but they did not protect the small people.”[ii]

In conclusion, the value of using the UPE lens to analyze the 2011 Bangkok floods in contrast to a focus on more conventional politics is twofold. First, this analysis highlights the unevenness and unjust spatiality of exposure to the floods. The peripheral areas of the Bangkok Metropolitan Region were the ones which received heavy FDI and immigrants from the countryside. They were also made more vulnerable to floods due to heavy land use, land subsidence, and their location outside the city’s major dyke. Moreover, these were the areas where the government blocked the water from entering into the inner city and where people suffered the most.

Second, this lens draws attention to the multiple ways in which ecological conditions, which conventional political analyses tend to ignore, and sociopolitical relations interacted with each other to form Bangkok’s hazardscape to the floods. In particular, power geometries and discourses constructing the environment have shaped the use of natural resources and the control of the environment. Examples include the building and manipulation of water gates, dykes, and temporary sandbag walls which helped shape the uneven geography of the floods in 2011, the filling of canals by developers to build housing estates, and the use of infrastructure projects, from which local elites profited, to protect the city from flooding but which actually made it more vulnerable when this infrastructure failed. All of these examples are laden with uneven power relations and underpinned by elite discourses which consequently shaped uneven vulnerability to the floods.

By using an UPE analysis, this research suggests a more inclusive and more comprehensive approach to urban disaster governance in Asia than conventional disaster risk management approaches. Such an approach takes into account the multiple causalities, both social and environmental, and compound nature of disasters. Specifically, analyses of disaster governance need to consider how socio-political relations, discourses used to interpret and address disasters, and ecological conditions shape governance practices. Understanding them provides insight into how, where, and for how long disasters are likely to unfold and what must be done to reduce the vulnerability of the most vulnerable from these disasters. In most Asian cities, where power structures and assets are still highly unequal, and where urbanization has been highly degrading, urban governance practices need to be reformed so that they are more ecologically sustainable and so that power and the benefits of urbanization are shared more equally.

Note: most of this post is extracted from ‘The Urban Political Ecology of the 2011 Floods in Bangkok: Creation of Uneven Vulnerabilities,’ Pacific Affairs, 88(3): 623-651

[i] Craig Plumb, “Bangkok,” in Cities in the Pacific Rim, Planning Systems and Property Markets, eds. Jim Berry and Stanley McGreal (London: E. & F. N. Spon, 1999), 154.

[ii] Phrom Samrit community member, interview by Danny Marks, Bangkok, 5 October 2014.

Danny Marks

Danny Marks is a Ph.D candidate in the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia.


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