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Floods, Animals and Shared Urban Futures?

by Leonie Tuitjer, on 10 April 2018
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When the city of Bangkok flooded following tropical storms in 2011, an altered urban waterscape erased the neat divide between human and nonhuman spaces. Leonie Tuitjer draws attention to two recurrent themes of interspecies interaction in the flood’s aftermath: sacrifices and compromises people made to protect companion animals, and anxieties generated by wild animals that had taken refuge in or near human settlements.

Series: Climate Change and Social Change

Southeast Asia is one of the areas of the world most vulnerable to climate change. Flooding constitutes a major problem within the region’s metropolises (Braun and Aßheuer 2011). Both slow-onset events like sea-level rise and flooding caused by less predictable monsoons threaten the livelihoods of millions of people along the Southeast Asian coasts.

In 2011, unusually heavy rainfalls during the monsoon season and a number of tropical storms in the north of Thailand destroyed large parts of the country’s infrastructure and agricultural sector. In November that year, the water masses reached the country’s capital, Bangkok, located in the Chao Phraya River delta. More than 700 people died from drowning, accidents and electrocution. The financial loss was calculated at US$43 billion (Lertworawanich 2012, p. 875). Moreover, the political conflict between “red shirts” and “yellow shirts” flared up again leading to disruptions within the flood-management and emergency procedures (Marks 2015; Marks and Lebel 2016).

Flooding events of this magnitude are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change. Thus, government, international organizations and bilateral programs are now working towards putting climate change on the agenda of urban planners in Bangkok to find ways of mediating potential future risks (Nicholls et al. 2008; World Bank 2009; Marks 2011; Bergquist, Daniere and Drummond 2014).

In 2015, I spent six months in Bangkok, studying the effects of the 2011 flood on human mobility and displacement experiences for my PhD dissertation in geography at Durham University (UK). In this brief essay, I foreground some empirical findings in which Bangkokians reflected on their interactions with other species during the 2011 inundation. While my PhD dissertation was primarily concerned with rethinking discourses on climate change–induced migration to consider mundane and small-scale forms of coping mobilities (e.g. withdrawing to the upper floor of one’s house, or seeking temporary shelter with relatives and friends), examples of interspecies contact during the flood were repeatedly reported in the interviews I conducted.

In 34 qualitative interviews with city officials, university students, community leaders, artists and environmental activists, two particular themes of interspecies interaction during the flood reoccurred: the sacrifices and compromises people had made to protect their “companion species” [1] during the flood and the anxieties generated during the inundation by wild animals that had escaped and taken refuge in or near human settlements. I use this essay to direct attention towards an under-studied topic within climate-change research: the issue of changing urban human–animal relations in an era of climate change.

I contend that climate change can be perceived as affecting all species sharing this planet. In urban areas, where human–animal relations are often marginalized in both planning and research, these relations may be significantly altered. This essay argues that climate-change events and discourses can serve as a critical opportunity to reconsider more-than-human presences in the city and to pose ethical questions about how to negotiate increasing pressure on scarcer urban terrains by humans and other species.

Pets and social well-being

As the water rose in 2011, Bangkokians had to search for shelter from the flood. In semi-structured interviews, I asked research participants how they organized themselves when it came to living through the flood. In these moments of personal conversation, I repeatedly heard stories from people engaged in the care of their companion animals. For example, a Thai officer working for the Town and City Planning Department in the Ministry of the Interior decided against evacuation, as he could not leave his dogs behind:

Yes! I was flooded [in 2011]. With my four big dogs. [They weigh] 60 kilos! I could not move out with them because I had to stay with my dogs. For five weeks! But I prepared myself. So I had enough water. Enough food and power to cook. […] But it was a very bad experience.

[Thongchai, January 2016, Bangkok]

A retired geography professor similarly pointed out that he stayed at home during the inundation as he could not think of another place where he could keep his dog safe by his side. The care for companion species thus clearly trumped concerns about personal comfort.

Fai, a PhD student I interviewed about her recollections of the flood, shared pictures on Facebook with me: one showed her father preparing to paddle their dog in a small boat through the inundated city to take him for a walk in the remaining dry districts of Bangkok, while the other showed children from a flooded neighborhood placing puppies into a floating box to protect them from the water.

Figures 1 and 2. Fai’s father preparing to transport the family dog to a dry part of the city; children protecting puppies from the floodwater

Source: Fai Monthakant Rodklai’s Facebook wall, with kind permission.

Auntie Lek, a leader of an informal community, informed me about how she had shared the last dry spots of their informal settlement with some stray dogs searching for shelter.

Research on urban human–animal relations during disasters is scarce, but it can be found. Examples include Lisa Zottarelli’s 2010 study of Hurricane Katrina, which found that “[o]thers who evacuated after the flooding were forced, in some cases by the threat of arrest, to abandon their pets. People were separated from their companion animals in the name of human health and safety” (Zottarelli 2010, p. 111). The author asserts that this separation further increased the trauma of evacuation and displacement and added significantly to people’s stress. While the codependency between humans and pets may be established within fields such as psychology or health studies, discussions of these relationships in literature on disaster risk reduction, climate-change adaptation, and urban resilience planning are rare.

And yet other approaches are possible, as I learned during an interview with a former student volunteer, Oat. Oat was in his final year studying at the prestigious Chulalongkorn University when the flood hit Bangkok. He contributed to his university’s flood-relief efforts by organizing the distribution of flood-relief kits, including food, water and other essentials as well as by organizing an emergency shelter in the university’s gym facilities. The students’ approach to managing this emergency shelter deliberately took a more-than-human approach.

Oat: So they [the flood victims] brought their pets along [to our university shelter].

Interviewer: What kind of pets?

Oat: Actually, like everything! So, we provided food and took care [of the pets] and also […] everyone who stayed in the camp could play with the pets. […] And owners could spend one hour per day with their pets… because the pets had to stay in their boxes. But every day the owner could spend one hour per day walking their pet around the university.

[Oat, October 2015, Bangkok]

Urban life and well-being are shaped by interwoven, interspecies arrangements of care and affection. What Oat’s report shows is that climate change and severe weather events will have an impact on these interspecies arrangements. Emergency shelters that allow for a continuation of such interspecies relations may help people deal with the stress of displacement experiences.

Crocodiles, lizards, and changing terrains for human–wildlife interactions

Climate change research that takes human–animal relations into account is predominantly concerned with rural or indigenous settings (see, for example, Cassidy 2012). Yet while the 2011 flood altered the available urban terrain for pets and humans, it also set free a range of other nonhuman species.

Monitor lizards that thrive in the city’s sanitation system were increasingly found in people’s gardens and roaming the dry patches of the inundated outskirts. While these lizards are not aggressive or dangerous per se, their presence can still be perceived as bothersome. The Thai word for these large reptiles, hîa (monitor lizard), which can also be used as a curse, reflects the strong cultural antipathy against these creatures. Auntie Lek remembered that, during the flood, the small patches of dry land in her backyard were occupied by the lizards. When I asked her if she was scared of them, she laughed, saying:

No. Not scared exactly. But, well… they are not so nice, really.

[Auntie Lek, January 2016, Bangkok]

She expressed a sense of unease and discomfort resulting from their increased presence [2].

Figure 3. A monitor lizard in Bangkok

© Leonie Tuitjer.

Moreover, the flood submerged some of the crocodile farms on the outskirts of Bangkok, setting crocodiles free. In addition to crocodiles, which thrived in the submerged city, bacteria and mosquitoes multiplied quickly within stagnating pools of water (MacKinnon 2011; Fernquest 2011). Climate change may thus not only threaten the existence of certain species but also provide favorable conditions for others, with dire consequences for human health, as the Director of the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP) (part of the Thai Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment) explained:

Now dengue fever or anything related to mosquitoes has become [a pressing issue for the Ministry of Health]. But they [the Ministry of Health] don’t make the connection back to the change in climate that stimulated the change in [mosquito] behavior. So […] everybody is doing things but then stop where their remit ends.

[Director of ONEP, November 2015, Bangkok]

The altered urban waterscape during the flood thus erased the neat divide between “human” and “nonhuman” urban spaces and moreover transcended the divides of political institutions. Having escaped from their bounded territories in parks or farms, animals were no longer controlled by the spectacle of an urban zoo or amphibian show. Human–wildlife conflicts now occurred within the middle of Southeast Asia’s largest metropolitan hub. Consequently, the flooding of Bangkok raised thorny questions about cohabitation between humans and nonhumans in this densely populated setting. In other words, in the era of climate change, it may be limiting to think of conflictual human–wildlife interactions as a predominantly rural or indigenous problem (Wolch 2002). As various animal species thrive in urban settings (Thomson 2007), densely populated cities may see increasing conflicts and renegotiations of space of this kind. This poses ethical questions and also highlights the need for more integrated approaches to policy and planning for urban climate change.

Wide-ranging impacts

The inclusion of animals in narratives about events like Bangkok’s 2011 flooding prompts us to consider the wide-ranging impacts climate change may have. It may also prompt us to reflect on—and potentially renegotiate—human–animal relations in the city. In urban areas, the impact of climate change on how humans relate to animals can take various forms. It may push to the fore long-forgotten human–wildlife conflicts or foster a greater sensitivity towards the needs of specific species. A variety of political as well as ethical challenges arise that may give rise to further research and reflection. In disaster situations, should we extend a “responsibility of care” to nonhuman species? How can we justify what species to include in such a potential ethos of care? Is there scope to develop such an ethos outside of a utilitarian or anthropocentric logic? How can we develop shared urban futures adapted to climate change with a more-than-human sensibility?

Bibliography

  • Bergquist, M., Daniere, A. and Drummond, L. 2014. “Planning for global environmental change in Bangkok’s informal settlements”, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, vol. 58, no. 10, pp. 1–20.
  • Braun, B. and Aßheuer, T. 2011. “Floods in megacity environments: vulnerability and coping strategies of slum dwellers in Dhaka/Bangladesh”, Natural Hazards, vol. 58, pp. 771–787.
  • Cassidy, R. 2012. “Lives With Others: Climate Change and Human–Animal Relations”, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 41, pp. 21–36.
  • Fernquest, J. 2011. “Crocodiles in the flood waters”, Bangkok Post, 11 October.
  • Fredrickson, T. and Wancharoen, S. 2016. “Lumpini Park lizard removal nets 40”, Bangkok Post, 21 September.
  • Haraway, D. 2003. The Companion Species Manifesto. Dogs, People and Significant Otherness, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
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Acknowledgments
I should like to gratefully acknowledge the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for funding my research project. Moreover, I wish to express my sincere thanks to Fai for letting me use her images, enlightening me on her experiences of the events during the 2011 flood, and also helping me with translations during my stay in Thailand and afterwards: ขอบคุณค่ะ [khob khun kha – thank you]!

Footnotes

[1Here, I am using Donna Haraway’s term from her Companion Species Manifesto (2003), in which she primarily referred to dogs. I follow her lead, reflecting particularly on the relationship between dogs and humans during the flood, as my interview partners mainly referred to their relationships with dogs. In the Thai setting of this essay, however, it should perhaps be pointed out that the categories of “pets” and “wild animals” are not as neatly separated as they might be in Western countries. A walk through the weekend market in Bangkok shows that—in addition to cats and dogs—turtles, singing birds and even monkeys are at times traded as pets.

[2A Bangkok Post report (Fredrickson and Wancharoen 2016) reported that the city government (Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, or BMA) had started to capture some of the lizards in order to control their population growth in the city’s parks, as their numbers seemed to have reached a critical level for making people feeling uneasy.

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To cite this article:

Leonie Tuitjer, “Floods, Animals and Shared Urban Futures?”, Metropolitics, 10 April 2018. URL: https://www.metropolitiques.eu/Floods-Animals-and-Shared-Urban-Futures.html
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