Chaotic capital feels the heat
Lack of greenery and poor urban planning pump up the mercury

Published: 5/05/2012 at 02:08 AMNewspaper section: News

Five months after the worst floods in half a century, Bangkok is facing a near-record heatwave with temperatures at three-decade highs, stoking a debate over the often chaotic urban planning in one of Asia's hottest and largest cities.

The average daily maximum temperature in Bangkok in April was 40.1C, the Meteorological Department says, prompting warnings from authorities for residents to be on alert for heat-related ailments.

Critics say the heat has been exacerbated by poor urban planning in the fast-growing city of 12 million people - from a thinning of trees by city workers, often to accommodate electrical power lines, to heat-trapping building designs and a relatively small number of parks.

"It is a factor," said Prawit Jampanya, director of the Central Weather Forecast Division at the Meteorological Department, referring to the role the lack of green spaces plays in trapping Bangkok's mercury-pumping heat.

"Having trees does help to relieve poor air quality and urban heat traps."

Though a tropical city, Bangkok has fewer trees and green spaces in proportion to its population than other Asian city. An Asian Green City Index of 22 cities released last year by the Economist Intelligence Unit put Bangkok's green spaces at 3 square metres per person in the metropolitan area.

That is well below the index average of 39 sq m and contrasts with Singapore, which has 66 sq m of green space per person.

Urban planning in Bangkok can seem arbitrary - from chronic congestion on main roads to obstructed or non-existent pavements and poorly enforced zoning laws that allow homes and apartment buildings next to office towers and shopping malls.

Authorities hope to bring some order to the city with a new urban plan that takes effect from May next year.

Chalermwat Tantasavasdi, associate dean at the faculty of architecture and planning at Thammasat University, says Bangkok's heat is made worse by outdated building designs that lack the proper insulation needed to keep buildings cool, leading to a rise in energy consumption.

The heat coincides with drought in 50 out of Thailand's 77 provinces, plus an increase in man-made and natural fires, just months after the worst floods in more than 50 years.

Businesses report surging sales of air conditioners, sun screen and other cooling products.

Humans aren't the only ones suffering from Bangkok's heat. "Because of the heat, we have had to put in place cooling measures for the animals," says Waraporn Gunton at Dusit Zoo.

Measures have included mixing ice with animal food and watering some of the animals down with sprinklers.

The Meteorological Department yesterday projected the temperature will cool down when the rainy season arrives next week.

Department deputy director-general Somchai Baimuang said that a southwesterly wind prevailing over the Andaman Sea will bring more rain across the country, including Bangkok.

By mid-May, the country can expect thunderstorms and the heat will begin to ease, he added.

To combat the rising summer temperature and an increasing number of hot days, creating more green areas has long been a flagship policy of many Bangkok governors, including current governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra.

City Hall, under the helm of MR Sukhumbhand, aims to create another 5,000 rai of green areas.

According to the "Bangkok State of the Environment Report 2010-2011", commissioned by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's environment department, City Hall was successful in increasing the area of public parks in the capital by about 1,260 rai last year.

According to the report, Bangkok has 5,687 public parks with a total area of 15,840 rai.

The department claimed that Bangkok has an average of 4.44 sq m of green area per person. The figure is, however, inconsistent with the 3 sq m calculated by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Apart from increasing the number of public parks, the BMA has also vowed to plant more trees along the roads under a scheme to revitalise Bangkok. The scheme is based on the concept of turning Bangkok into a green city.

MR Sukhumbhand's four-year term will end early next year and it remains to be seen if his attempts to green the city will help combat the summer heat.