These images just north of Bangkok were taken from the plane, only minutes before landing at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. Only contrast and color correction were applied, to cut through the haze of the plane window. Widespread devastation is clearly depicted, and moving threateningly closer to Bangkok every day.

The flooding is on such a massive scale it appears as an ocean displaced into the center of Thailand, while some of these pictures almost look like Caribbean islands. But this area is nowhere near a coastline, and there is not suppose to be any water in this area.

With flooding 2 or even 3 meters deep to the rooftops all the way to the horizon, this is the deluge that Bangkok has been nervously awaiting. Many people want to know just how this much water got here in the first place. If it were left to flow naturally the problem wouldn’t be as severe, but this kind of disaster is a cooperation between man and nature.

Thailand sits on a downward slope, with water flowing naturally from the north into three rivers which run through Bangkok, and finally out to the Gulf of Thailand. Over time deeply forested areas acting as natural dams have been replaced with a complex patchwork of man-made dams, levees, dykes and canals, diverting the flow of water through irrigation channels, and around communities and large industrial estates.

This year has experienced 30-40% more rain than usual, but the larger problem is the amount of rainfall which came over a short period just since September. Early in the season the level of some dams was lower than expected, and much of this water was held for future irrigation. Later with the Chao Phraya river rising and the dams quickly approaching capacity, a decision was made to keep most of the flood gates closed for fear of overflowing the rivers and flooding Bangkok, the commercial center of the country and Capitol seat of government.

As flood waters rose and levees began to break, numerous temporary barriers were erected with millions of sandbags, more or less deliberately flooding the northern communities in a feverish bid to save Bangkok. This has understandably angered the communities of Ayuthaya and Pathum Thani. If not for blocking the massive amount of water from draining downward, these areas would not have flooded as severely as these pictures show.

Hundreds of factories and large industrial estates have been inundated, including Western Digital and small component manufacturers which has taken out 25% of the worlds hard drive production for the next several quarters. Nikon and Toyota are underwater, as many others on top of agriculture and millions of lives directly affected. Some angry groups even began tearing down barriers themselves, and now the Thai Army has been charged with protecting them. Although as the water pressure increases, none of these barriers have managed very well.

But the government cannot block the water forever. In spite of growing calls to simply open all flood gates and let the water flow, they are still under control in attempts to slow down the flooding that will inevitably overtake Bangkok’s numerous canals, and the Chow Phraya River. There is no question of the flooding to come, only how long most of the levees and barriers will be able to slow it down.

The level of flooding comes down to simple math. There are an estimated 10 billion cubic meters of water, rising and building more pressure against the barriers every day. Bangkok is 1,600 sq. kilometers, most of it at or near sea level (and actually sinking every year). At maximum efficiency and with all pumps operational, the city can drain not more than 400 million cubic meters per day. But the water is not waiting for any of that, and has already entered some parts of the city as of today. One airport has already shut down with flooded runways.

Adding the math, it will take not less than 20 days for 10 billion cubic meters of water to pass through the city and into the Gulf. Not all of the water will find its way to sea so easily, and official estimates put the flooding of Bangkok at four to six weeks, with some parts of the city waist deep or higher. It seems clear that if the 10 billion cubic meters shown in these pictures were brought to Bangkok at once, Bangkok itself would look no different. The only question is how quickly that might happen, or if the flow can be controlled well enough to prevent the devastation seen just north of this metropolis.

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