- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2000

BANGKOK Once known as the Venice of the East for its stately canals, Bangkok now shares a less lovely distinction with the Italian city. Like Venice, Bangkok is sliding into the sea, so much so that the entire capital could be below sea level within 50 years.

Thailand's Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) says the city is sinking at a rate of 2 inches a year and that 6 square miles already are below median sea level.

Built on swampland next to the Chao Praya River, Bangkok has always been a low-lying city. Every year, the Thai capital weathers heavy rains during the Southeast Asia monsoon season rains that slow traffic and flood houses.

The canals are gone, paved over years ago in a breakneck rush to build a modern city.

The factories and housing estates that sprung up during Bangkok's economic boom of the past two decades tapped into the city's ground water, a recent DMR report said. And as more water is pumped out of the ground, soil sinks in to replace it.

Land-use analysts in Bangkok estimate that 88 million cubic feet of ground water are pumped up every day in the capital, double the amount that safely can be removed. Industry alone uses nearly 49 million cubic feet of ground water daily.

"If we don't stop overpumping, we will face a really serious crisis," said Deputy Industry Minister Wuthichai Sanguanwongchai.

Industry abuses the water table because ground water is simply too cheap, said Wanchai Ghooprasert, governor of the Provincial Waterworks Authority.

Ground water costs 1 cent per 3* cubic feet, about half the cost as water from the tap.

In addition, Bangkok's ability to control floods has been constrained due to the past 20 years of paving over canals to build roads and blocking up drainage systems much of it in a building boom of unregulated construction.

If Bangkok dropped below sea level, floods previously limited to certain districts might decimate large swaths of the capital for weeks at a time, the DMR report said.

These floods also could be a health hazard. Leptospirosis, a disease spread via water, killed at least 13 persons this year in Thailand's swamped northeast and could spread to a submerged Bangkok.

Despite the potential for disaster, the government has done little to prepare.

DMR sources say proposals to address the sinking-city crisis have been ignored because government officials are unwilling to alienate industry and land owners.

The department has suggested raising the fee for pumped ground water and injecting water from higher areas of the city into the soil beneath districts that are sinking most rapidly.

The Thai Cabinet has been mulling the latter proposal for the past 17 years without acting.

Ultimately, Bangkok might have to construct hundreds of dikes, an infrastructure project so massive it could bankrupt the city, which already spends roughly $255 million on flood prevention each year.

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