With its rich history and present day challenges, the metropolitan region of Bangkok, Thailand made a fascinatingly apposite backdrop for the 5th workshop of the Adaptation Partnership. Skillfully organized by ISET, the event focused on “Building Urban Climate Change Resilience in Asia,” July 31-Aug 2, 2012. Full presentations from the event can be downloaded here.
Since 1960, the population of the Metropolitan Region of Bangkok has expanded from 3 million people to over 12 million. This has brought with it the mounting challenges common to so many rapidly growing mega-cities, namely, that most of the materials and energy used by a city come from outside its physical boundaries. Coupled with the escalating pressures from climate change, there are new, more complex and urgent governance issues to be addressed.
It was in late October 2011 that one of greatest floods ever to swamp a city so large in world history peaked in Bangkok, submerging an estimated 20% of the city. The World Bank estimated economic damages and losses from the disaster over US$45 Billion. Across the country, the flooding lasted 175 days, affected 65 of Thailand’s 77 provinces and flooded the homes of almost 19% of the country’s 67 million people.
Responding to calls for action, the Government of Thailand concluded that the flooding in Bangkok was exacerbated by extensive deforestation in the watershed of the city. This has resulted in an official plan outlining intensive efforts by the government to reforest the watersheds of Thailand. Over the next 4 years, the program will plant 800 million saplings. This proactive response in the rural environment is an example of valorizing the ecosystem services upon which a city depends.
This is not an isolated phenomenon. International investments to protect ecosystem services are rapidly increasing as the vulnerability of urban systems to climate change and the physical adaptation limits to the water-energy-food nexus are increasingly clear (and costly). In essence, the urban led efforts to revalue and protect ecosystem services along the urban-to-rural gradient are simply smart economic decisions to secure the benefits obtained by cities and people from ecosystems.
While most residents are quite familiar with their city’s dependence on the provisioning services of surrounding ecosystems (eg. food, clean water, timber, beer, etc.), other types of benefits may not be so readily apparent – one of the reasons for their past unmonitored appropriation by cities to fuel rapid growth. Other oft-overlooked assets include the regulating services (e.g. flood control, water quality, air quality, climate control, disease regulation and pollination) and supporting services (e.g. soil formation and nutrient cycling) of various ecosystems. Despite their location, inside or outside the city’s traditional physical boundaries, they are being increasingly recognized as integral parts of the urban system.
4 Types of Ecosystem Services
In addition to Thailand’s forward thinking investment in the regulating services of the watersheds of Bangkok, there are other exemplary valorizations of ecosystem services present in the city. Specifically, this is the valorization of cultural services within the urban ecosystem itself. These benefits are too often overlooked by cities. The cultural services of ecosystems can be recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual, and include the tourism industry as well. This is demonstrated by the case of Bangkok’s giant reclining golden Buddha and the Blue Line train expansion.
Wat Pho is a 200 year old royal monastery and one of Bankgok’s largest and oldest temple complexes. It is built on the site of a much older temple, Wat Phodharam, which dates back to 1300 AD. Home to the reclining golden Buddha, the temple serves the multiple purposes of being a very important religious center, a major tourist attraction and is one of Thailand’s oldest learning centers hosting the WATPO Traditional Medical School – the birthplace of Thai massage. When Wat Pho was constructed by King Rama 1, the city’s population was around 50,000 people. Today with 12 million residents, the sacred site continues to deliver key services that benefit all age groups, income classes, residents and tourists alike.
One of the common challenges of mega-cities is the planning, implementation, operation and scale-up of efficient public transportation. In response to Bangkok’s strong growth, the Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTA) has worked tirelessly since 2000 to implement efficient mass transit across the city. Today, there are over 87 km of high quality rail service operating with an additional 149 km approved or under construction. By 2030, the city plans to have 509 km of rails serving the city.
The MRTA is undertaking a number of rail projects, one of which is the US$1.53 billion expansion of the “Blue Line.” This includes the 14 km section of Hua Lamphong – Bang Kae that will have a capacity of 50,000 pax/hour/direction and should be operational by 2015. It includes a 4.8 km underground section containing 4 underground stations and runs under the Chao Phraya River and the Wat Pho complex itself.
With the purpose of monitoring and protecting the important cultural urban-ecosystem services of the Wat Pho temple from the potential impacts of the Blue Line expansion, the MRTA has implemented careful monitoring of any settlement and vibration impacts. This will ensure the conservation of the valued cultural services of the temple for the city now, and for future generations.
Climate adapted urban systems will be the economic drivers of the global future. Bangkok demonstrates proactive management of a new fitness landscape, one that both valorizes a sustainable use of ecosystem services beyond traditional spatial political boundaries, and monitors second and third order consequences of climate change.