An Urban Political Ecology of the 2011 Bangkok Floods


Danny Marks

PhD defended at: 

University of Sydney


This thesis challenges the dominant approach to examining flooding through a case study of the 2011 Bangkok floods. The alternative approach developed here views floods not only as outcomes of biophysical processes but also as products of political decisions, economic interests, and power relations. This approach illustrates how vulnerability to floods, which is a combination of exposure to floods and capacity to cope with them, and the extent to which floods are a disaster, are uneven at multiple scales across geographical and social landscapes. Using a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods, the thesis investigates how state actors and socioeconomic processes affect the production of vulnerability to flooding. The study addresses theoretical and empirical gaps in earlier studies through its multi-temporal and multi-scalar approach to a major disaster. Little research in Southeast Asia, and thus in Thailand, analyses disasters from an in-depth urban political ecology (UPE) perspective before, during, and after the event. This thesis argues that floods in Bangkok are the result of human-nature interactions over time, particularly over the last half-century. While the Chao Phraya River Basin received heavy rainfall in 2011, a number of human activities interacted with that rainfall to create the floods. Bangkok’s dense urbanisation heightened resident's collective exposure while the pattern of urbanisation caused vulnerability to floods to become more imbalanced both spatially and socioeconomically. The historical development of the water system of the basin reflected primarily the interests of elites, which further heightened the collective vulnerability to flooding of those living in Bangkok. During the floods, both politicians and bureaucrats made decisions on how dams and water gates were managed to protect the interests of farmers. These varied decisions caused more water to flow downstream. Fragmentation and conflicting interests among state actors, patronage incentives, and technical weaknesses enervated the state’s response. Once the water reached Bangkok, state actors undertook various actions, such as closing water gates, erecting temporary dykes, and diverting water, which created new inequalities in terms of those who were exposed. Reflecting Bangkok’s socioeconomic and political inequalities, communities in the peri-urban fringes, particularly slum communities, were heavily inundated. These communities experienced the highest flood levels and for the longest duration, whereas the inner city of Bangkok was protected and remained dry. During the floods, many local leaders and residents collectively challenged these injustices by various forms of protest, somewhat reshaping the spatiality of the floods and reducing their vulnerability. Subsequent to the floods, for the most part, state agencies have not addressed underlying drivers of vulnerability to floods. Due to unchanging power geometries, state responses merely reproduced the proposed solutions and associated economic and environmental injustices of the past, while also creating new patterns of uneven exposure. Overall, placing the role of the state as central in it analysis, the UPE analysis made in this thesis provides a nuanced understanding of how state actors together with unequal socioeconomic processes have mostly reinforced each other and have created uneven and unjust vulnerabilities to flooding across several spatial and temporal scales.