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Bangkok’s canal housing settlements tackle flooding but rouse mixed reactions

Sandbags are piled up along the bank of the Chao Phraya River as a preventive measure against flooding in Bangkok on 7 October, 2021. Photo: Jack Taylor/AFP

On one day in September 2022, Bangkok experienced some of the heaviest rain in the past 20 years. The downpour quickly overwhelmed the city’s drainage system, leading much of the capital to become instantly filled with dark murky water. Within hours, two of the city’s main drainage canals, Khlong Lat Phrao and Khlong Prem Prachakorn, were inundated. Once the flooding reached a certain level, water rushed into the informal housing communities sitting along the canals.

“The rain is heavier this year,” said Surin Yoosiri, a Lat Phrao Canal resident who hopes that a new housing initiative could help solve the flooding crisis. Although Surin’s home no longer experiences significant flooding as it has been moved further away from the canal, other residents in the area are not so lucky.

“It’s the houses that are still above water that face the most risks,” he said.   

Flooding hits Bangkok every monsoon season with almost total certainty. As the capital endlessly urbanises, less permeable land is available to absorb water, increasing flood risks during heavy rain, experts say. Some areas are in the process of becoming ‘upgraded’ or relocated in line with a 2016 government project aimed to help drain water out of the city. But some residents feel it’s harming the community more than it helps. 

The new housing development in Lad Prao proposed as a solution to informal housing structures. Photo: Mailee Osten-Tan for Southeast Asia Globe

“There’s no justice,” said Bung Amnuay, a Lat Phrao homeowner with a family of seven. “I’ve been living here all my life, and they want me to move to a space where there’s not enough space for my family.”

Most of these homes belong to low-income families like Bung and Surin. Many local’s houses are built on stilts directly above the canal water. Trash is routinely dumped either by accident or intention, into the water below. As the canals are all connected in a web-like system, trash flows together from many different sources ultimately joining at Latphrao Canal.

Significant measures, including canal dredging to increase water flow are essential to increase the efficiency of the canals, experts say. But the main drainage pathways clogged by waste from the city to the Chao Phraya river, mean they do not drain with full functionality. 

“Bangkok’s structure has been changing rapidly,” said Sunyaluk Kongkijakarn, the drainage system development director with Bangkok’s drainage department in a press conference in August. “Previously empty places have rapidly been turned into high-density areas. Therefore, our system is not able to handle it yet.”

A view of Lad Prao canals. Photo: Mailee Osten-Tan for Southeast Asia Globe

Bangkok’s newly-elected governor, Chadchart Sittipunt said at a press briefing in July that the canals are one of Bangkok’s core drainage systems, and are crucial to help drain water out to the Chao Phraya River. 

 “The real heart of Bangkok, in both the east and the west, is the canal,” Chadchart said. “The concept is that water from the city can be moved via the canals to reach the water gates before getting pumped out [to the Chao Phraya River]. The most important point to strategize is the canals.” 

Canals were dug to reduce travel times around the Chao Phraya River in the late 1800s. The Lat Phrao Canal was completed in 1872 to help facilitate water flow, but also to open up land for farming on both sides of the waterway.

The canal areas are still home to thousands of families who are informally living on the land. Estimates suggest there are approximately 50 communities along the 22-kilometre-long Lat Phrao Canal, totalling at least 7,069 households. These communities are vulnerable to the worst effects of flooding.

And when a devastating flood hit Thailand in 2011, countless people called for a nationwide response. Eventually the government decided to improve the informal housing that encroached the canals in order to help drain water out of Bangkok.

The plans were not realised until 2016 under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the temporary governing body born from the 2014 military coup. The Cabinet approved a budget of 4,061 million baht (108 million USD) for the Community Organisations Development Institute (CODI) to improve the housing for the communities along the Lat Phrao Canal.

Informal canal communities will be one of Thailand’s most impacted groups by the long-term effects of climate change, according to the Porous City Network. Sea level rise and increased rainfall pose a serious threat to Bangkok, especially to the Lat Prao Canal communities. 

A view of the river from the Terracycle plant. Photo: Mailee Osten-Tan for Southeast Asia Globe

Today, houses are in the process of being moved onto land. A key aspect of the project is guaranteed housing rights for those who live in the area. The arrangement includes financial assistance to support a portion of the construction costs. After 15 years, houses will be under the tenants’ name, but the land would still be owned by the Treasury Department.

Out of the 22 kilometres long canal, only three sections have been developed successfully. And one of the challenges is establishing housing rights among the existing residents. 

“The quality of life has changed from one side of the hand to another,” said Prapatson Chutong, a homeowner living along Lat Phrao Canal. “I’m really happy. I’ve been living here my whole life, so I know.”

She believes the housing development project involves sacrifices, but is necessary for the greater good. 

“People who are not willing to be part of the development, I have to say that they are self-interested. They don’t see the benefit to the public good to develop the area.” 

Surin Yoosiri, opposite his house. Photo: Mailee Osten-Tan for Southeast Asia Globe

For Somnieng Bonlu, a 65-year old community leader in Pibul Ruamjai 2 Community, the project is one of the only feasible options.

“It provides a solution for residents in the community,” he said.

Somnieng has seen the transition of the Lat Phrao Canal since its origins. Originally, the land was used for rice farms. But when people moved to Bangkok, landowners would rent out small plots to build homes. As time went on, the land was passed to the Treasury Department and rented monthly from around $0.02 – 0.08 per metre and most houses paid less than $0.31 (50 Thai baht) each month back in the 1950s.

But in modern Bangkok, the flooding crisis continues to make headlines. Residents are desperately hoping that they won’t have to face the same floods they saw in 2011. For many living in the area, they can no longer live at the mercy of the rising water.

“[The development] shows that the canal can be re-envisioned as something better,” Somnieng said. “ More than a waste waterway or slum, but a lively community that is inviting for visitors.”

Bung Amnuay, in his house. Photo: Mailee Osten-Tan for Southeast Asia Globe
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