The Politics of Flooding in Bangkok

December 1, 2016

Munk School of Global Affairs

With the disastrous Bangkok flood of 2011 as backdrop for his case study, Dr. Danny Marks, UCRSEA Postdoctoral Fellow, set out to challenge the dominant approach to examining flooding as the natural and inevitable consequence of climate change rather than a more serious governance issue. In an UCRSEA Partnership Project-hosted seminar held on December 1, Dr. Marks demonstrated how floods are also the result of political and social decisions, which exacerbate, instead of mitigating, the problem and thus, increase the vulnerability of affected communities.

The 2011 flooding was the worst the country experienced in terms of deaths and economic losses. Compared to previous years and as data showed, the magnitude of flooding was not as great as it was in 2011. These would suggest that this calamity was not just a result of nature and climate change, but a combination of both natural and social processes. The latter arose largely due to poor disaster governance in the urban transition of Thailand’s Central Plains. They included mismanagement and the failure of infrastructure, uncoordinated land use change, land subsidence, and the filling in of canals. However, it has been the Thai Government’s practice to implement structural measures to control and manage water and protect communities from it.

Danny argued that an urban political ecology (UPE) approach, which rejects the separation of the urban and the environment, is a more appropriate way of analyzing and finding solutions to the problem. This approach views cities as hybrids and historical products of human-nature interaction.  It rejects the separation of nature and city, i.e., that humans have transformed nature in cities. By viewing cities as landscapes of power, UPE raises the question of how power determines who gain access to resources in the city, such as why some urban communities are located where they are.

For his study, Danny employed a two-tier approach: (1) community-based methodology, in which 100 interviews in four communities (Bangkok Metropolis, Nakhon Pathom, Nonthaburi and Samut Sakhon) were conducted focusing on how socioeconomic processes affected vulnerability to the 2011 floods; and (2) actor- and discourse-based methodology, in which 100 key informants were interviewed on how processes were shaped by the practices of discourses by actors at multiple spatial and temporal scales. He also examined and analyzed historical data dating back since the last century, the urbanization and seemingly unequal development of Bangkok and surrounding areas, the Thai Government’s land use and flood management schemes, and socio-economic indicators.

Among his conclusions were: (1) socio-environmental causes led to the 2011 flooding; (2) the most powerful groups in Thailand profited from changes to the urban environment; (3) state practices before 2011 contributed to the floods; (4) the high degree of political and economic inequality contributed to unequal production of vulnerability and hence, injustice; and (5) research on and solutions to flooding must, therefore, be social and political, including addressing power structures.

For more on Danny’s study, go to