Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Fort Mahakan and Chaopraya Promenade: a bridge too far for Bangkok, or an ASEAN Green Capital’s foundation?

The debate over preserving Mahakan Fort in terms of heritage architecture and community development, and desperately-needed green space and parks resonates across Thailand and here in UK.

Such issues within Bangkok also dovetail with the wider issue of the Chaopraya Promenade and improved public transport in BKK.

Personally I’m firmly in favour of the Chaopraya Promenade, a London Embankment alongside the klongs if you will, with river walls, ferry links and cycling paths as well as the unique buzz of Bangkok’s stalls and markets.

The fizz and excitement of the Pak Klong Talad flower markets and orchids – rivalling East Kent’s rare orchids, whether very early morning or at night, alongside the Memorial bridge, are one of the great undiscovered gems of Bangkok tourism.

And in my politics role here in East Kent, to “Stop the Pollution. Stop the Corruption and Stop the Construction”, and future ASEAN Trade Envoy roles etc, I’ve shamelessly stolen various innovative Yingluck policies – not just free computers for schoolchildren or the rice welfare and food management scheme – but also the emphasis on watermelon politics of green on the outside and red on the inside, balancing environment and social needs.

And beyond the narrow confines of colour-shirt politics – certainly those issues are ultimately for Thailand as a modern democracy to resolve - it’s reassuring that that such innovations as the rice pledge are being adopted and improved by PM Prayut’s government, as well as debate around the Chaopraya.

For the issue of the Promenade as shown with the recent ferry drownings and floods in Bangkok and Phetchabun, demonstrate the need for careful management. For example, some of the existing plans for mega-concrete riverbanks could be not only unsightly but cause problems further downstream.

And such straightening of the Chaopraya riverbanks will increase the tidal flow of the river, scraping ever more soil from its banks and depths and depositing it in the delta. Perhaps even destroying much of the work in restoring the mangrove forests there.

UK certainly too often plumbs the depths in flood management for example the lack of tsunami flood alerts in the North Sea – as Thailand has successfully introduced in Phuket – could repeat the damage an depths of the 1953 and 1978 floods for both Kent and Holland.

But in UK we’ve begun restoring bends into rivers to reduce the tidal flows. Even planting boulders in the river to help prevent floods as in the River Ravensbourne.

And here in East Kent, Margate has undergone bijou flood defences to protect the town centre and harbour from Climate Change floods while sensitively improving the ambience of the cultural quarter with promenades and steps for enjoying the sunsets of what the artist Turner, and Margate’s Tracey Emin, called “the loveliest skies in Europe”.

And this week the Medway region of Kent featured in parliamentary debates on flood prevention and regeneration of the Thames Gateway urban renewal projects. Almost $60M is pencilled-in for not just fairly minor defences, but a wider range of innovations, not just avoiding building on flood plains.

There are now 1,200 troops on UK standby for flood support rather than lounging in barracks, 40km of collapsible flood fences, and building tweaks such as solid floors and power sockets at least 1M higher up the wall. The latter handy too for an ageing population not having to strain their knees and hips and the NHS to unplug the telly, or plug in the heater for another cold winter.

But perhaps the world-class lead in flood management must lie just across the English Channel in Nijmegen in Holland. A country that needs few lessons in water management – it’s not called the Low Countries for nothing. And Dutch work in Vietnam’s delta – one of two red zones for danger highlighted by UNEP with Bangladesh – must also be key to Future ASEAN, whether tourism or rice production.

But Nijmegen particularly resonates as I’m a supporter of the Liberation Route Europe project that works with Dutch tourism and stretches across Europe form here in Kent with Operation Fortitude to Gdansk in Poland celebrating and commemorating the liberation of Europe with the end of WW2.

Nijmegen was one of the famous 4 bridges of the Market Garden, Bridge Too Far campaign, and movie, in the Arnhem conflict in September 1944 where British and Polish forces were overwhelmed at Arnhem the last bridge.

All the more astonishing bravery in the second wave of Polish parachute troops jumping into Arnhem to support their British comrades, landing days into the conflict to almost certain defeat and capture.

The Polish contribution of a Brexit at the plane-door wasn’t questioned then, nor the current contribution to the UK with 1M Poles and language a key social and economic factor, and also here in East Kent, with Canterbury’s two universities forming the largest group of Romanians outside Bucharest.

Much as a few days earlier with the Nijmegen bridge crossing by Major Julian Cook of the 82nd Airborne – a crossing of four waves of boat troops having seen the first gunned down.

But Nijmegen, despite its low-level and watery topography, now basks in what Churchill described as the sunlit uplands of peace and freedom – and will be the 2018 Green Capital of Europe, hard on the heels of the success of both Essen in Germany and Ljubljana in Slovenia.

And Nijmegen may be relevant for Bangkok as its water management innovations are a reflection of the monkey-cheeks aspect of King Bhumibol’s self-sufficiency programmes. For Nijmegen in its flood management work has created a sliver of the River Waal to create a 4km long new urban park and island. The island and new tributary serves as an overflow for any new floods.

And with, not one but count ‘em six, new bridges across the Waal and the island it creates a base for pedestrians, events and festivals and a country park linked to the town centre.

It won the 2011 Excellence on the Waterfront award in 2011 and in my tourism advertising and PR work with Sincerity I’ve rarely seen a more integrated solution.

While Green Capitals such as Ljubljana or Copenhagen lead the way in banning cars to emphasise pedestrians as well as electric car and bus infrastructure. Such sustainability is all the more important here in Europe with UK ending coal energy in 2025, France by 2023, and Stockholm by 2040.

The aforementioned Essen in Germany is already an urban park converting the coal and steel sites of the Ruhr.

While Spain is active in green regeneration with the Basque region’s Vitoria-Gasteiz town population living within 300m of green space, and even more so Almeria, with its EU regeneration programmes moving beyond the decline of the port and heroin trade, corrupt government and tax scandals to innovative programmes with its universities and colleges.

Certainly strong links between the Almeria Group of Universities and East Kent will be, with ASEAN links, a key part of Future Kent.

Britain needs to make further strides from Bristol’s Green Capital in 2015 with its solar levy, a poo-bus(!) running on human waste, electric car charging points and expanded tourism work.

Certainly the completion of the first Crossrail metro tunnel across London, Europe’s largest construction project, shows that mega-cement infrastructure has its place in say refurbishing UK’s crumbling Victorian sewers, and the need for desalination sites for drinking water given Climate Change floods.

The latter is also relevant for Bangkok in overcoming monsoon storms and land management for reservoirs, and in not allowing Singapore to remain as the only ASEAN capital with potable tapwater.

But if Nijmegen can in effect translate King Bhumibol’s self-sufficiency economy, why should Bangkok as an ASEAN Green Capital be a bridge too far?


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