Chao Phraya Riverside Promenade: Development for the few, devastation for the many

Work on the Chao Phraya Riverside Promenade has begun. Communities are driven away as Bangkok puts profits ahead of environmental concerns.

By John Pennington, Edited by Tan Jie Ying

The Chao Phraya River was once Bangkok’s final development frontier. Not anymore: the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has started displacing communities living alongside the riverbank to make way for the first phase of the Chao Phraya Riverside Promenade Project.

Several riverside communities must move as the river will be narrowed to make way for the 14 kilometre-long promenade. “Approximately 70% or almost 40km of both sides of the riverbank are occupied with encroached structures, and there is limited public access to the river,” the BMA claimed. “Other people find it difficult to enjoy the river view, to visit old temples or riverside communities, or to participate in the country’s significant festivals.”

Bangkok’s promise of compensation may dampen discontent

Some of those living on the riverbank have accepted they must move on thanks to the BMA’s promise of compensation. The BMA has paid them to the tune of more than 100,000 baht (US$2,995.80). “It’s good that I can have some money to start over somewhere else,” resident Malai Rakphuengamarit said.

But most residents themselves must fork out a sum to dismantle their dwellings. Otherwise, they will not receive compensation. The BMA estimated residents would need to pay around 104.5 million baht (US$3.1 million) to cover relocation costs.

Malai harbours reservations about the project’s alleged merit. “They said they want a clean river, but then they will build a road onto the river, I don’t think it’s going the right way.” She is far from alone in having concerns over the 14 billion baht (US$30 million) project.

Not all residents cooperated with the BMA in pulling down their homes and moving on. Several put up a fight. Law-enforcement officers were deployed to ensure order during the demolitions.

The BMA gave the green light despite environmental concerns

“It will serve as an efficient flood protection and water drainage tool for Bangkok,” the BMA asserted. They claimed an environmental impact assessment (EIA) was not necessary as the project poses no significant threat to the environment or people.

Experts disagree. Friends of the River (FoR), a community non-profit organisation, argued the project is a waste of money and will only further destroy the Chao Phraya. “There’s no cultural bond left between the riverside and people; nowadays it’s just a drain,” Yossapol Boonsom, founder of FoR and landscape architect, said.

Nonn Pavitvong, from the Bird Conversation Society of Thailand, held similar reservations. “It is almost 80% dead because the heart of the river ecosystem on the river bank has already been destroyed,” he lamented. “However, a large structure over the river will further kill the river ecosystem and push it closer to a total ecologically dead river.”

FoR launched several campaigns. One of the more notable campaigns involved the use of social media – #RiverNotRoad – that Greenpeace and others supported. But the social movement fell short as the BMA decided to press ahead. The BMA conceded little in the face of rising public discontent. The only concession they made was planning to reduce the width of the promenade from a maximum width of 19 metres to a maximum of 10.

FoR also planned to launch a legal bid to save the residents. But it appears to be too little, too late.

The BMA is betraying their keenness to get started on the riverside project by moving ahead without an EIA. They already disregarded genuine concerns over river flow blockage, riverside scenery and public participation from local communities.

Those who raised concerns had just three opportunities in seven months to present to the BMA. This is a timeframe that some say suggests corruption. In-house architects were entrusted to design the development. This move keeps the project further embedded within the government. Those taking charge did not consider other plans.

Locals disagree with BMA’s assessment of what impact the promenade will have

The BMA wants the promenade to become a new tourist magnet. Locals countered by denouncing the BMA’s decision to start construction without consulting the public.

“Not only this riverside promenade project, but also many cycle lanes in Bangkok are also opposed by the local people,” the head of Thailand Cycling Club Thongchai Pansawat said. “That’s because the construction of these cycle lanes did not consider the local people’s needs and they were a top-down policy.”

“This project has had zero public debate, this project is for the money, not for people,” architect Duangrit Bunnag said.

It is hard to disagree with Duangrit’s assessment. Short-term financial gain from an increase in tourism will be good for the Treasury. However, the long-term impact on the river, its ecosystem, and those who rely on it for their livelihood will be overwhelmingly damaging.

“Chao Phraya for All” is a farce

Calling the project “Chao Phraya for All” is a farce that should fool nobody. The BMA has united both rich and poor against them by their handling of the project.

Following a number of delays, the project is now underway. Workers are destroying homes. Communities are leaving. The ecosystem is dying.

The Chao Phraya River development was poorly conceived and badly managed. The BMA failed – or did not want – to take a broad enough view to consider how best the project could benefit all stakeholders. Disruption, displacement, and devastation are the results.

“The Chao Phraya River is a precious gem,” Yossapol said. “If we polish it and look after it, it will be worth a fortune. We can’t make any more mistakes,” he pleaded.

There are now calls for a unified agency to manage Thailand’s waterways

There is now little chance to stop the Chao Phraya River promenade development. However, opponents will continue to fight against it in the hope they can affect change in the future and avoid repeated mistakes. The BMA must realise that they must not ignore environmental and social concerns.

Reform of the management of Thailand’s waterways is badly needed. Coordination and cooperation between government departments are inadequate, and stakeholder consultation is minimal.

Adis Isrankgura, an advisor at the Thailand Development Research Institute, raised the idea at a seminar. “Every part of the system is interconnected,” he said. “However, the BMA’s riverside promenade project does not consider the complexity of the Chao Phraya River system, which can lead to negative impacts upstream and downstream.”

Supporting the idea, Paranee Sawasdirak, Civil Society Planning Network activist, added, “An independent central agency [or mechanism] should ensure a unified decision-making process, but the proposal still needs to be discussed, and the public needs to be involved in the discussion regarding the appropriate form and model of the agency.”

Establishing and running such an agency would go some way towards preventing a repeat of the Chao Phraya development upheaval. However, for the families that have already moved on, and for those concerned about the environment, that will be of little consolation.