The southern Thai city of Ayutthaya is in hot water. Well, saying “hot water” isn’t entirely accurate. I should say, “high water.”
This low-lying city, which has a population of about 55,000 people, has been experiencing terrible floods, and it’s only expected to get worse. Flood waters sweep through Thailand every year during the flood season. It’s never a question of if — it’s a question of just how much land will get swallowed up this year. The 2011 monsoon season was particularly devastating for certain provinces, with as many as 13 million people affected. Experts estimate that rising water levels across the globe and climate change will cause many parts of Thailand to get gradually consumed by the sea over the next 50 years.
What makes this news even more terrible is that the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization named the city as a World Heritage site. Many cultural monuments, such as these beautiful prang reliquary towers pictured below, are at risk of crumbling beneath the rising waters. Locals fear that the centuries-old structures won’t be able to withstand the water damage. Soamsuda Leeyawanich, director general of Ayutthaya’s Fine Arts Department, explained that city’s spent 600 million bhat ($19 million) repairing more than 100 different historical sites that have been damaged so far.
But all is not lost! Architectural firm Shma follows the philosophy that when life gives you an unavoidable flood, you turn it into a pool party. They have proposed 2050 Ultra Flood Plain, a city-wide aquatic design that will welcome the inevitable flood, rather than fretting over it. Their plan is to create an intricate water detention system that will allow the city to manage rising water levels without dramatically affecting the day-to-day lives of citizens.
One happy coincidence with this plan is that there’s already one aspect of Thai culture that’s perfectly fine with high water levels: rice. Shma believes that they can turn this negative into a positive by designing rice paddies that can soak up the water and yield incredibly high volumes of food. Additionally, biological waste from these farms can be converted into biogas that can power the city.
Not only should the design help to protect the historical buildings, but it should also attract more tourists. Ayutthaya has already incorporated its lakes, the Chao Praya River, and its waterways into a popular tourist attraction. They come to canoe, kayak, travel around the city in a water taxi tours, and (most importantly) spend money. The extra waterways that get created by the Ultra Flood Plain should give locals more opportunities to appeal to tourists.
This architectural design is an excellent example of making the best of a bad situation. We can’t say for sure what Ayutthaya officials will do to protect the city against flooding, but it’s hard to imagine somebody coming up with an idea that’s cooler or more effective than the 2050 Ultra Flood Plain.