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Rethinking our cities' link to water

Water holds special symbolic significance in Thai culture, from Loy Krathong to Songkran festivals. But as much as we respect the value of water, we must also recognise that failure to care for our water resources puts our lives and wellbeing at risk.

Over the last four decades we have transformed the natural landscape of Thailand. As the country has become rapidly urbanised and industrialised, we have filled much of the floodplains, wetlands and even canals to turn water into land, so that we can build and expand our towns, cities and industrial parks.

In doing so there has been very little consideration of the potential risks of such changes. Yet these risks are intensifying. It is often said that the effects of climate will be felt through water, and that our cities and urbanised areas will be on frontline in dealing with climate vulnerabilities of floods and droughts.

Risks for urbanising Thailand

The recently launched five-year National Economic and Social Development Strategy outlined in the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council’s (NESDC) 13th plan for 2023-2027 rightly recognises that urban areas are especially vulnerable to climate change. This is an important shift.

Despite the rapid pace of urbanisation there has not been a clear national urban strategy, meaning that the tensions between protecting natural waterways and hydrology and expansion of our built-up areas have not been addressed.

At the same time, while the Office of National Water Resources has recognised the increased complexity of water management due to “growing demand, rapid urbanisation, land use change, and outdated urban water systems and irrigation infrastructure, reinforced by the consequences of a changing climate”, there is no specific strategy to address these urban-related water challenges.

In its commitment to preventing and mitigating the impacts of natural disasters and climate change, the NESDC highlights the importance of “urban planning and systematic land-use allocation” and of “determining methods and guidelines for using low-lying areas for water retention and setting up drainage systems according to the water plans”.

These are significant policy recommendations. But recommendations that also expose critical weaknesses in Thailand’s existing urban policy framework.

Urban planning and systematic land use allocation has been especially weak across the country. Most of the most rapidly growing urban areas have expanded despite their land use plans that should guide such growth being several years out of date. Water is also the missing ingredient in any of these plans.

Moving beyond engineering

Our experience working in Hat Yai municipality in Songkhla province of the last decade, illustrates many of these challenges and risks.

Hat Yai has aspirations to become the second-largest metropolitan area after Bangkok with ambitious plans for new road networks to create a new urban area extending beyond the municipality to cover several tambons — requiring a level of cooperation in strategic planning across local administrations that has rarely been achieved in practice.

But it is the more obviously rural areas that are becoming a part of this wider metropolitan region, blurring the distinction between urban and rural.

Hat Yai — like much of urbanising Thailand, is highly vulnerable to floods, partly due to its location but also due to the history of urban change, experiencing major flood disasters in 2000 and 2010.

The main response to these crises has been in increased investment in flood protection infrastructure, often reshaping irrigation for agriculture to flood drainage systems. This has come at significant financial cost.

The main purpose is to protect the economic urban centres. Yet such flood protection is focused on these urban areas at the expense of their rural surroundings, so that rural areas retain water that would otherwise inundate the city. But as the urban areas grow further, there will be a wider area that needs protecting.

The experience of Hat Yai also speaks to a concern that over-dependence on engineering solutions might divert attention away from addressing the underlying factors that have shaped flood vulnerability — particularly the expansion of urban areas in floodplains.

A core question is the extent to which such flood protection infrastructure might inadvertently encourage the kind of land use change that has contributed to the flood risk in the first place.

Additionally, we must also consider the potential for failure in critical infrastructure. Our experience indicates that we are close to critical thresholds — and that with changing patterns of rainfall with the intensification of climate change — the likelihood of a critical failure is only growing.

We cannot rely solely on such infrastructure without addressing the root causes of urban flood and increased drought vulnerability.

Achieving the aspirations outlined in the NESDC 13th Plan will require more fundamental shifts beyond only thinking about engineering solutions.

Realising a balance between strategic planning for land and water will require levels of cooperation across the various relevant ministries and agencies that has rarely been seen, and between the various sub-national administrations who will be part of this emerging metropolitan centre.

Perhaps more critically, realising these metropolitan aspirations requires a clearer vision of what we want our urban futures to look like, and creating the appropriate policy processes to meet such visions in ways that meet the needs and hopes of all the people who are to become metropolitan citizens.

Richard Friend is an Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of York (UK). Pakamas Thinphanga is an urban climate resilience lead expert at the Thailand Environment Institute (TEI). This article is supported by the EU-funded ‘Strengthening Urban Climate Governance in Thailand’ project, and UK GCRF ‘Political Capabilities and Equitable Resilience’ project.

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