May 20, 2017 5:30 pm JST

Development plans for Chao Phraya river threatens to drain Bangkok's soul

Rushed scheme to narrow river with promenade provokes public ire

MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR, Asia regional correspondent

The promenade will be built in front of The Siam. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

BANGKOK -- As morning breaks over Bangkok, the first river taxis packed with office workers roar past Wat Arun, known as "Temple of the Dawn" -- a towering grey Buddhist landmark on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river. Elsewhere along the waterway, which curves through the Thai capital, communities living in wooden houses on stilts stir to life, while tugboats resume their daily chore of slowly pulling barges laden with cement upstream.

The 50 hotels on the Chao Phraya's banks have tapped into this riverine scene to attract tourists. Holidaymakers take in the languid sights as they tuck into breakfast on wooden terraces overlooking the lapping waters. "The river is the reason for our hotel's existence, because we cherish the life along the river," Marisa Sukosol, owner of The Siam, a swanky riverside boutique hotel, said during a boat ride down the Chao Phraya.

But the days of enjoying sweeping riverfront views could be numbered. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, the city's government, backed by the ruling military regime, is rushing to gentrify the culturally-diverse riverbank that is rich with historic landmarks. Police General Aswin Kwangmuang, Bangkok's governor, told local media that plans to build a 14km-long, 10-meter-wide elevated promenade along both sides of the river will begin in July.

The structure, which is estimated to cost 8.3 billion baht ($240 million), has been justified by the BMA as a way of opening up the river, or at least its banks, to the public. "Approximately 70% or almost 40km of both sides of the riverbank are occupied with encroached structures and there is limited public access to the river," the city's ruling body noted in a statement. "Other people find it difficult to enjoy the river view, to visit old temples or riverside communities, or to participate in the country's significant festivals."

The BMA is promoting the elevated road's continuous bike paths and walkways along either side of the "River of Kings," as the Thais also call the 372km river that meanders its way south from a confluence in central Thailand down to the Gulf of Thailand. The promenade would not be higher than 2.25 meters above sea level, the BMA said, noting that this meant "it will serve as an efficient flood protection and water drainage tool for Bangkok."

Widespread opposition

But the administration's attempt to "develop" the capital's famously unplanned urban sprawl along the contours of the Chao Phraya has come under fire. The blueprints of the promenade, which will jut out into the water and block sweeping views of the city and its eclectic river activities, have met with opposition from a broad network of citizens working to delay the project. They include some of Thailand's wealthiest families and some of its poorest, an unusual mark of solidarity in a semi-feudal society.

Thai architects and influential patricians of Bangkok society, denouncing the bureaucratic effort to tamper with the river's storied diversity, face heavy odds. They only had three occasions over seven months to raise objections with the BMA -- a timeframe that has aroused suspicion among the promenade's opponents, with some suggesting corruption has been at work. "This project has had zero public debate," said Duangrit Bunnag, an award-winning Thai architect. "This project is for the money, not for people."

The BMA's promenade threatens to tarnish the picture-postcard scenes of the Chao Phraya. "This promenade will kill the life of the city, because once you construct the pathway it will cut the connection between the water-based communities and the river," said Yossapon Boonsom, a landscape architect and co-founder of Friends of the River, a grassroots network campaigning against the BMA's plans. "Bangkok will lose its charm if the river ends up looking like a Western city, not a water-based Asian city."

Historical records amplify this point, as Thailand's most famous waterway has its banks dotted with ancient settlements, gilded temples, mosques and churches, lavish royal palaces and landmarks of trade that date back 500 years. They are all visible and easily accessible from the river. The Chao Phraya has been a "commercial and logistical lifeline for Bangkokians and the heart and soul of Siam then and Thailand now," the anti-promenade critics noted in a statement.

Families with deep commercial ties to this busy waterway have been surprised by the BMA's rush to build the promenade with limited public consultation. Among them are suppliers of boats for river taxis and tourist rides, which ply this busy waterway from dawn till dusk, carrying tens of thousands of passengers over a 24km stretch. "We were not in the formal information loop and neither the BMA nor harbor department informed us about this structure," said Farn Sritrairatana, executive director of the Chao Phraya Express Boat Company, a 100-year-old company. "Our dockyards may be blocked."

Flood risk

Hydrologists are also scratching their heads as they weigh the risk the promenade poses to communities living along the river's banks, victims of annual floods in a city where large swathes are a meter below sea level. Sitang Pilailar, a water resources engineer at Kasetsart University, warned that the promenade will narrow the width of the river, affecting its hydrodynamics.

During the flood period and spring tides, the water level could rise faster and overflow, she said. Salinity that flows from the gulf up the river, which now reaches 120km inland, could worsen, according to preliminary mathematical models. The promenade will influence "flood factors, water quality and multipurpose water usage" for the 11 provinces in the central alluvial plains that share the river, Sitang said.

Despite such criticism, BMA officials are holding their ground. They have fanned out to meet leaders of local communities and drive home the promenade plan. For one long-standing community that lives in rundown wooden houses on stilts, upheaval is on the cards. "The BMA wants us to relocate," said Jamnien Puangraya, a 53-year-old resident. "We will only have our memories."

Yoss, of Friends of the River, wants to stem this tide of change and save this community of 200 households, who have lived on the Chao Phraya's banks since first living on houseboats, a once common practice. "We came here in the 1940s," said a resident, as he prepared to fish in the river, which is teeming with catfish.

Yoss has set his sights on the administrative courts. "I am now collecting information to file a case," he said, emphasizing his last desperate resort to save Bangkok's soul.

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