In 40 Years, the Most Visited City in the World Might Be Underwater


When I was 17, I had the great fortune to spend the better part of a year in Bangkok thanks to a student exchange program. It was a hell of an adventure, and though I've yet to make it back to Thailand's City of Angels it's on my list of places to travel to again. Unfortunately for myself, other travelers and the 14 million odd people who live in the Bangkok Metropolitan Area, we're on a time limit. Everything from the backpackers ghetto of Khaosan Road and the whorehouses of Patpong to Wat Arun, the Grand Palace and the working class district I called home for a year; Every district of the 2013 Most Visited City in the world is due to sink like some kind of latter day Atlantis over the next 40 years.

According to a 2-year study by Thai and European scientists, the city is sinking at a rate of 3cm per year (1.2 inches for those who use Imperial measurement). The team, headed by Anond Santiwong of Thailand's Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency, say the data is a major cause for concern given the flooding Bangkok experienced in 2011. When combined with rising sea levels and the fact that Bangkok is only a few feet above sea level to begin with it's not hard to see the threat the ground subsidence poses.

There's no one cause for the sinking; some of the causes are natural while others are the fault of man. Santiwong attributes at least 50% of the sinking to illegal tapping for groundwater, as well as the sheer amount of weight of all the modern skyscrapers being built on land that was originally flood land. Santiwong also acknowledges that climate change is also playing a part in the city's sinking. "A thousands years ago, all of Bangkok was flood land. Somehow over a certain period, we had more than average strong winds and waves. Those strong winds and waves from the sea moved the sand and soil and accumulated in this area and it became Bangkok. We believe we are in the phase where we have less strong winds and storms in this particular area. So thus no more mechanism to bring in the sediments and the clay from the sea, the ocean."

While most modern skyscrapers are built with foundations that go several feet into the ground most if not all of the older buildings, particularly the temples, don't. Successive Thai governments have been warned about the problem, but unsurprisingly the warnings have fallen on deaf ears. A boom in high rise condo developments has officials fearful of spooking investors. And, as always, the next election is always more important than addressing serious problems for a politician.

How to combat the problem though? Opinions are divided. Some have suggested better land management, though if you've ever been to Bangkok you know that will happen just as soon as the Thai people give up their love for spicy food. Others have suggested building a series of protective dikes along the Gulf of Thailand similar to those that protect the Netherlands. One radical idea has even suggested that the capitol be moved to the northern part of the country. Whatever happens though, it needs to happen soon. Experts estimate the Government has a 7 to 10-year window to act before preventative measures become moot points.

No one seems to be able to agree on anything, not how much Bangkok will sink or how much flooding will occur or what should be done, nothing except that the sinking is happening and that something must be done to stop it. And all the while the clock is ticking for Bangkok, the most visited city in the world and the city that I once called home.