Bangkok, the megacity capital of Thailand, lies on the delta of the Chao Phraya river. It is one of the most important commercial centers in South East Asia and a gateway and principal destination for many visitors. It has more than 400 richly decorated temples and six universities. Its numerous canals, many of which are home to floating markets, give Bangkok the name “Venice of the East.”

And like the original Venice, Bangkok too is slowly sinking. The TIME magazine article Rescuing a Sinking City describes some dramatic events in flood-ridden Bangkok:

Two people are shot when a group of desperate families raids a flood-control embankment. The wounded raiders are seeking to drain the water from their suburban Bangkok district; the gunman is protecting his dryer neighborhood. Elsewhere in the sodden Thai city, slumdwellers stage boat races in water fouled with raw sewage, and medical teams distribute antityphoid vaccine and foot-fungus ointment. It is monsoon season in Southeast Asia, and as this year’s rains have made all too obvious, Bangkok (pop. 5.5 million) is slowly sinking.

Today, the megacity of 12 million people is still sinking. The extract from the TIME magazine article above, which was written 28 years ago in October 1983, goes on to explain how the Thais themselves worsened the megacapital’s sinking fortunes:

The Thais themselves inadvertently pulled the plug. Their 200-year-old capital began as a trading village in swampy lowlands on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. Natural and man-made klongs (canals) provided transport and natural drainage. After World War II, economic growth lured hundreds of thousands of workers to the city, and newly prosperous Bangkok took to the automobile with a vengeance. In the scramble for road space, most canals were filled in.

When the city’s water supply failed to keep pace with expansion, private industries, hotels and housing estates sank their own artesian wells into the water table on which the city rests. During the past 15 years, with more than 11,000 wells sucking the underground reservoir dry, the city has been sinking at a rate of four to twelve inches a year. Parts of the city have dropped as much as three feet. Warns Prinya Nutalaya, professor of geotechnical engineering at the Asian Institute of Technology: “If nothing is done, all of Bangkok will be under water by the turn of the century.”

Fast forward to October 2011. After decades of public apathy and the government’s traditional mat pen rai (never mind) attitude, a heavy monsoon season is about to bring the 12 million residents of Bangkok face to face with the nightmare of Professor Nutalaya’s warning. Here is Prime Minister Shinawatra, speaking just a few hours ago:

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ordered the city’s sluice gates to be opened to tackle the “national crisis”, and said that it is impossible to stop the kingdom’s worst floods in decades gushing into Bangkok.

The mass of muddy water crept closer to the low-lying capital, home to 12 million people, triggering an exodus in flood-stricken areas just outside Bangkok where residents waded through waist-deep water clutching belongings.

“We cannot block the water forever,” said a sombre-looking Ms Yingluck.

“The longer we block the water the higher it gets. We need areas that water can be drained through so the water can flow out to the sea.

“I have decided to ask Bangkok to open all gates, which could trigger an overflow, in order to drain water into the sea as soon as possible.”

As it happens, TIME magazine revisited the issue of Thailand’s sinking capital city in the article Thailand, Sinking published in July 2011.

…Jan Bojo, a World Bank expert in the Thai capital, says one of the reasons Bangkok is sinking is the abusive pumping of ground waters. But even if they all agree that the situation will get worse within the next few years, experts differ on the causes. Smith Dharmasaroja, head of the National Center for the Prevention of Natural Disasters, predicts that in 2100, Bangkok will have become a new “Atlantis.”

The last word goes to the cynical flood control specialist from 28 years ago. Flash back to the TIME article from October 1983 once again:

…Deputy Prime Minister Phichai is determined to solve the problem. Says he: “Even if it would cost 10 billion baht [$435 million], I don’t mind.” Others fear that the project will fall victim to post-monsoon mat pen rai. Predicts one specialist on flood control: “After autumn, after the rains, they will forget.”

As with so many other unsustainable human follies, the few knowledgeable scientists, experts and specialists who knew what challenges had to be addressed for true long term sustainability were ignored and brushed aside. As always, the selfish, greedy, short-sighted seething mass of the unknowing, uncaring and uninformed got its way, and enjoyed the long party. And so, with every passing decade, Bangkok comes closer to its man-made appointment with a watery fate.