We lived with floods before; why can't we do so again?

opinion October 27, 2011 00:00

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The Nation recently talked to Sumet Jumsai, architect, planner and author of the book Naga, which deals with water-based culture.



 

Q: Are there solutions to the flood problems?
A: There are basically two solutions to living with annual floods in the central plain: one is to control water with dikes, and the other is to live with the water element. Controlling water involves hydraulic engineering, which involves huge investments. But it goes well beyond engineering. It has to go hand in hand with the tradition of water management and legislation, which in the Dutch case goes back several centuries. The same applies to the master plan or a major hydraulic enterprise which, once decided upon, must be adhered to whatever the time span - the Ijsselmere closing dike, for example, took 200 years to complete from the drawing board in the seventeenth century. Very important too are national traits, single mindedness to defend hydraulic integrity, and self sacrifice.
I doubt whether Thais can accept an integrated hydraulic system and management. Former Bank of Thailand Governor Dr Puay Ungphakorn hired a Dutch firm to formulate a comprehensive polder mosaic plan for Bangkok in 1970s, and it fell on deaf ears. The solution has to consist of both the hydraulic and amphibious components. In our case, diked areas should be confined to the minimum. In any case, such areas should be limited because taking up space in “monkey’s cheeks” or water retention areas will cause ever-higher flood levels. Specifically, town and country planning by-laws must from now on clearly define flood protected areas and flood zones, and building regulations must enforce appropriate building design. All buildings must have an upper storey that can be evacuated. Power outlets on this level must be above the water line. If there is a basement, it must have a barrier at the entrance.
 
Q: You talk about the Dutch trait. What is the Thai trait, and what good will it do ?
A: Our built environment evolved with nature, not against it. Our national trait is marked by resilience, inventiveness, flexibility and ad hoc programmes to problem-solving. In the central plain, it meant living in amphibious homes or houses on stilts. This is a cultural heritage that has been ignored at a cost. Inventiveness is shown this year by someone who invented a car wrap from under the wheels to prevent water getting into cars. I will not be surprised if these wraps will be on sale in supermarkets before the next flood season.
 
Q: You mentioned amphibious homes. 
A: There are some vivid examples. Tha Khanon, a village in Surat Thani province, is one. Every year it is flooded up to ten metres or more. The houses sit on bamboo rafts and the whole community floats up with the deluge. They then descend to their respective plots with the aid of wooden poles, to which each home is latched. That was what I saw forty years ago. I went back recently and saw only three raft houses left, the others having been “modernised” to become buildings on the ground. However, the severe flood this year destroyed the whole village except for the three floating houses. I have previously tried to get the Tourism Authority to preserve the community and promote it as a destination, but to no avail.
Another example is Song Phi Nong or Bang-li in Suphanburi province. In the dry season the town was like any other, with car traffic. In the monsoon, streets became submerged and all commercial activities moved to the upper level. Balconies serving as walkways connected the whole town. Cars gave way to longtailed boats, which then queued up at the petrol station, which had moved upstairs along with the market, shops, clinics etc. Song Phi Nong then became a tourist destination. However, about thirty years ago, the local authority earth-filled the entire town in a modernisation programme.
Nineteenth-century Bangkok used to consist of both aquatic and amphibious communities. The amphibious part comprised houses on stilts, and the aquatic the innumerable raft houses on the river and klongs which made Bangkok the only known floating city in the world. Interspersed were masonry structures on the ground – the temples and other ceremonial buildings. But even so, they were often built on boat-shaped podiums to infer flotation.
 
Q: Can the examples cited lead to real projects?
A: As a practitioner and not an academic, I would like to give you real examples. I am currently involved in the design of a geriatric hospital for the BMA in the middle of a Monkey Cheek in Bang Khun Thien. The conventional solution would have been to landfill the area straightaway. However, our design respects the flood zone and the new hospital buildings will not disturb it in any way.
 I am also involved in the team working on the new Thai Chamber of Commerce University Campus north of Bangkok. Planning began this year in the dry season. But already we were thinking in terms of water and how to avoid going against nature. Besides the polder and canal plan, we also designed the buildings to be amphibious in that they are built on stilt columns with a multi-purpose ground floor which can be evacuated if inundated. If floods are severe, water would not be opposed, so the campus would not be different from the surrounding area. In such an event, the buildings would not suffer undue inconvenience or damage because of the amphibious provisions in the design. This design principle should serve as a model for buildings in the central plain, including residential, academic or industrial. 
It is interesting to note that in the Netherlands a group of young architects have recently breached a bund to let water into the polder in order to build a floating housing estate. The buildings, floating blocks of three-storey flats, were quickly sold. They now plan a whole new town, all afloat, with raft gardens and greenhouses. The underlying philosophy is the return to living with nature, like in Bangkok of yester-year.