Thailand's Water Crisis Is Bad Omen: The Ticker

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By William Pesek

As the streets of Bangkok fill with water, much of the world's attention is on Yingluck Shinawatra. The Thai prime minister's unsteady handling of the mounting crisis is inviting unkind comparisons with U.S. President George W. Bush's bungling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and rightfully so.

Yet an even more vital story is at play here as monsoon rains devastate Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy: how Asia is paying a price for overdevelopment and the forces of climate change, and a fast-growing one at that.

Thailand’s worst floods in half a century have swamped about 10,000 factories north of Bangkok, imperiling businesses, shopping malls and apartment blocks, and forcing foreign executives to consider leaving the city. Companies including Toyota Motor Co. and Hitachi Ltd. are implementing evacuation plans. Richard Han, chief executive officer of Hana Microelectronics Pcl, is absolutely right when he says “Thailand’s credibility is on the line here."

The threat to global supply chains and food prices -- especially rice -- will reverberate around the globe, crimping gross domestic product in neighboring Asia and corporate profits the world over. Even more focus should be on the wisdom of massive urbanization flows that cluster millions in low-lying cities prone to flooding.

Thailand is a perfect example of the dangerous convergence of high population density and extreme and erratic weather patterns that scientists link with increased carbon emissions. For generations, Thailand's placement along the Mekong River and the fertile land it created was considered a blessing. Severe floods are changing this basic calculus.

Storms, typhoons and floods are becoming more numerous and severe at a time when global sea levels are rising. A city of vast canals, Thailand was once the Venice of Asia. One wonders if history will repeat itself for Bangkok's 12 million people, who will soon travel more by boat than buses and motorbikes. Similar fates may befall Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Manila, Mumbai, Shanghai and Tokyo in the decades ahead.

It's entirely unclear what can be done about all this. Urbanization will continue -- in Asia, the cities are where the jobs are. And governments are foundering in efforts to reduce their carbon footprints. What is clear is that leaders should get as used to water in the streets as they are protesters.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

-0- Oct/31/2011 15:36 GMT