Welcome to the Bangkok Aquarium, Our Future History
The rain is splashing down like the wrath of God. Kim Ki-taek, the father and head of the family, scurrying back home with his children, Ki-woo and Chung-sook. The home is not part of anything estate-like but a basement shared by four members of the family. The underground dwelling depends on sunlight and air bestowed by sidewalk grates. The rainfall transforms into a tsunami flood, inundating the whole house and leaving them with few belongings. It is an unforgettable nightmare. The family now curls up at the gymnasium shelter, wearing donated second hand clothes which smell like rags and tatters.
This is a scene in Parasite (you might have seen the film and remember) which portrays difficulty in life of the marginalized. All four family members are smart, they have potential but lack the opportunities due to their social class, and they cannot even protect their own safety. While a country like South Korea portrays inequality head-on, back in Thailand, some people are worse off every time there is a flood. Not everyone has enough money to defend their own life, and not everyone has a second home to run off to. We all need to ask ourselves: are there people who are left behind every time there is a natural disaster?
Bangkok, an Aquarium City
Bangkok is the capital city which imitates Ayudhaya city plan. This includes flooding season which is a war tactic to prevent enemies from crossing the river to attack the city. Bangkok is sometimes called Venice of the East since it has a river flowing in the central part, with canals around the city, and boats as the major means of transportation in the past. Most people in Bangkok used to be farmers, with traces of the past now are the farmers around the city periphery. With this information, even a six grader can tell that we have lived with water for a long time. Bangkok is good-natured with the sea level, since it is only 1.5 meters above the level. Flooding season is only natural.
But what is unnatural is centralization of development which hastens the sinking of Bangkok in the next twenty years. The water from the north, climate change which precipitates heavy rainfalls and rising sea level, are all the factors. As of now, some parts of Bangkok are already two meters below sea level, Sukhumvit and Ramkhamhaeng, for instance. This is due to incessant water pumping for industrial use, in other words, the land is sinking every night as we are asleep. Another thing that helps assure the sinking of Bangkok is the city plan. When there is a 30-minute rainfall, Bangkok faces at least one-foot flooding, the traffic is paralyzed, and debris from sewers floating along with lives in the city. Academics forecast that in the next twenty years, flooding in Bangkok will be as high as three meters, or that of a two-story townhouse.
And no one will be able to escape, even if they wanted to.
Torn Apart and Bled Dried in Every Crisis
Do you know who is the most affected when it has been raining in Bangkok for around 30 minutes? It is those with low-income! The skytrain fare from home to work accounts for 50 percent of income when minimum wage is the basis. This is why they are left with no choices. Imagine the wet sidewalk, drenched clothes, and smell of the damp. Daily life costs much more when you are poor.
Let’s go back to our flooding crisis in 2011, the worst natural disaster in fifty years in terms of economic loss. Behind the numbers, there is something we did not see which is the invisibility of the urban poor. When the affected took their house registration or identification card to get compensation, people in the crowded, poor neighborhood had none. They were the first and the most affected, but the last to be cared for. They did not have the power to demand, and did not have even the second floor to escape to when the water came. Their possessions, their insecure jobs, all floated away with the floods.
Even though the authorities had been warning about the forthcoming water, it was not easy — nor possible, for the urban poor to retreat anywhere. Every move had its cost, not to mention children, the elderly, and people with disabilities who had to be cared for. They did not have the financial means to be safe, even the simple task of moving electric outlets was not possible. It was estimated that the loss of possessions for each housing was around 52,500 baht, the loss of income was 52,500 baht, and the increased debt was around 73,423 baht. The numbers exclude social impact, stress, loss of pets, or family disputes.
In the country where being poor means being hapless, only money solves life problems.
Plastic Sheets for Walls, and Paper Boxes for Roofs
A basic need in a human life is housing. But not for the 3,000 homeless persons in Bangkok who are seen by the authorities and the public as troublemakers and threats. In actuality, up to half of homeless persons have been victims of violence, mostly from family members which compels them to run away from home.
Frail equipment cannot protect them from nature, be it the scorching weather, smog, or sudden floods. The homeless encounter natural disasters face-to-face with almost nothing to protect themselves, and lack of understanding from the public. And much more than understanding, they need welfare and quality of life, as they are citizens of this country. Access to jobs, food, health care, safe and adequate housing are what every human being is entitled to.
Nature is unpredictable, but to leave no one behind can be planned for.
Sincerity Is a Quality of Decent Government
In 1991, Tokyo faced the heaviest flooding in 30 years, the flood inundated for more than 100 kilometers, causing incalculable loss. In the following year, the government decided to build giant tunnels to protect the city from flooding. The tunnels took 20 years to build, with 100,000 million baht cost. The result is 70 meter high tunnels spreading more than 6.2 kilometers, the drainage system is able to empty 200 tons of water per second. The Tokyo citizens can live safely even in the days of heavy rainfalls.
After a great flood in 1953, the Netherlands decided to build the ‘Delta Project’ which accounted for 0.84 percent of its GDP. It is the biggest water management system in the world to prevent flooding. The Netherlands is the second biggest exporter of agricultural products in the world and the water system is a visionary decision from the government to solve the country’s problems. When life is safe, people in the country are able to work and pay taxes.
Visionary innovations and creations should be able to tackle inequality and ease access to everyone. Sincere government should follow this step, with no behind-the-scenes intentions to implement policies that do not benefit the people. Policy-making should be human-centric. If the new ideas to move the capital city, to replan the city, or to build a giant water management system do not aim to benefit the people, problems will still be dragged on. A problem is that of a race, if we are not well-prepared, we are going to lose, which means everyone in the country will be defeated, and we see more clearly now considering the pandemic management.
Bangkok is sinking, we are dying. And we need to be prepared.