Tackling southeast Asia′s water worries | Global Ideas | DW | 07.10.2014
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Global Ideas

Tackling southeast Asia's water worries

Architects and industrialists are experimenting with different approaches to help rapidly changing cities as well the countryside cope with the increased risk of floods and mudslides. But will they be enough?

Flooded streets (Photo: CC/NIST School Shared Account)

Flooding is becoming an ever greater problem in Thailand

Water, water everywhere is part of life in the paddies and deltas of southeast Asia. In future, the Kingdom of Thailand may be ruled less by a monarch and more by that everyday fact.

People working in a shallow river bed (Photo: DW/Uhlig)

Peasants plant trees and erect bamboo structures to slow down the river and prevent flash floods

Earlier this month in the mountainous provinces in the northern hill country around the city of Chang Mai reported heavy flooding following prolonged rains; monsoons in 2011 brought floodwaters and mudslides across the country, causing more than 800 fatalities and €35 billion in damages with inundations up to three meters.

It is not only the countryside with water on its mind. The sprawling city of Bangkok now rises high over the Chao Phraya river; it is hard to feel sometimes in the density of Sukhomvit or on the sun-baked sidewalks of Bang Rak but it is a water city, shot through with canals - the khlongs, sometimes clotted with pollution and old weeds. It sparkles high in the air with cocktail aeries and rooftop pools and air-conditioned shopping, its new high society drawing Lamborghini dealers into the malls.

Cities, countryside besieged by water

Flooded streets (Photo: EPA/RUNGROJ YONGRI)

The water rises in the streets of Bangkok

But the city’s water infrastructure is in trouble. The khlongs are sorely overburdened and if it rains hard skeevy water can be up to your knees in an hour along the side streets. It does not take much for flooding to threaten the city as it did three years ago, coming close to causing general evacuation.

Thailand’s water worries inspired a team from King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi to design a low-rise modern “Baan Chaan” house for its entry in this summer’s Solar Decathlon Europe. Featuring natural ventilation, an elevated floor and open terraces, the Baan Chaan design combines technologies with traditional Thai homebuilding strategies and a dash of “tropical atmosphere,” says team project architect Sirakit Charoenkitpisut.

Academic advisor Acharawan Chutarat says architecture can only go so far: built solutions are great, waterproof materials and design can be used in flexible ways. But if the city doesn’t address its drainage system in a systematic way and find answers to social and environmental change, architecture in Bangkok will need to raise its game by several meters above ever-more-submerged sidewalks. Its dense population, which now bring those sidewalks to such dazzling life, will be looking for rafts.

The curse of commodity crops

Deforested area (Photo:Global Witness)

A forest is cleared to make room for rubber plantations

More generally, a path toward broader relief from flood and mudslide risk could lie with easing the pressure placed on land by expanding commodity businesses like natural rubber plantations and palm oil groves. But it’s a complex situation.

Turning natural forest into monocrop plantations reduces total rainfall but boosts the likelihood of a deluge when it does rain, according to area studies north of the capital by a Chulalongkorn University engineer cited in the Bangkok Post. It’s boom and bust: drought is actually the first problem, then flash flooding. A study from a surveyor and architecture team at Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malyasia, meanwhile, makes an explicit connection between rubber planting and increased flood frequency and magnitude.

Ninety percent of the world’s natural rubber supply comes from Southeast Asia. Given that natural rubber is what the Wall Street Journal reports to be a €25 billion cash crop, it will be a tough place to look for change. For people in nations climbing out of poverty, one of the ladders will continue to be made of rubber.

Renewable rubber a game changer

Even so Alan Barton, for one, brightens up when talking about making a change. Chief executive of Atlanta-based Lehigh Technologies, Barton is leading a small manufacturing operation taking end-of-life rubber—worn-out pneumatics, spent conveyors, ratty radials—and turning it into a powder that can replace oil- and rubber-based raw materials used to make asphalt, new tires, plastic and consumer goods. Barton’s outfit is positioning the product as a sustainable material: sustainable based on its cost to manufacture, its carbon impact, waste avoidance and lack of toxicity. Barton’s micronized rubber is a success: it’s been used in the manufacturing of 250 million American tires since the business started eight years ago.

The industry is also paying attention to sustainability This spring the industry’s International Rubber Study Group launched an initiative stressing quality of production and increasing the use of already degraded forest lands for plantations. Individual producers are starting to pitch in.

If—and it’s a big if—rubber substitutes and industry sustainability initiatives make changes in upstream land use, it’ll be a long way away. Stefan Bringezu, director of material flows and resource management at the Wuppertal Institute in Germany, says to the extent synthetics and rubber substitutes have reduced demand for natural rubber, the plantations are converting into palm oil farms. "If we want to stop global loss of biodiversity we need to stop converting natural land, in particular native forests, into plantations."

No plantations, no trouble with flooding and mudslides. But for peasant farmers, no plantations make moving to Bangkok more attractive. That places more pressure on already-stressed drainage infrastructure. And then the rain comes.