January 30, 2007
Cobra Swamp is reclaiming Bangkok’s showpiece airport
Andrew Drummond in Bangkok
Bangkok’s showpiece international airport, opened last year, appears to be sinking into the swamp on which it was built. The city’s old airport will have to be reopened and some flights diverted there.
The $4 billion (Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£205 million) Suvarnabhumi airport was opened with great fanfare by Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister, shortly before he was ousted by a military coup last year. It boasts the world’s largest hangar and tallest control tower.
More than 100 cracks have appeared in runways, taxiways and the apron.
Thailand’s temporary Government is conducting an investigation into its construction at a site formerly known as Cobra Swamp. Hurried repairs are being made after flights had to be diverted to a former US B52 bomber base at U-Tapao, near the holiday resort of Pattaya.
As alarm grew about the airport, designed to handle 45 million passengers a year, Thir Haocharoen, the Transport Minister, was seeking Cabinet approval to reopen the Don Muang airport for domestic flights. Eleven of the 51 piers for unloading aircraft are unusable because of the cracks.
Throughout the 40 years since the new airport was first planned, there have been allegations of corruption and shoddy work. When it opened there were unworkable lifts, a shortage of lavatories, a leaky roof and large areas of unfinished construction.
‘There is so much bad news about this airport and so much that needs to be fixed,’ said Yodiam Teptaranon, a board member of Airports of Thailand (AOT), which is responsible for the site. ‘Everything seems to be happening all at once. It makes everyone concerned.’
The news comes at a time when Thailand is struggling to maintain its tourist industry, which was damaged by last year’s events and concern about the military coup.
There are 61 problems and design flaws that need to be corrected at an estimated cost of 1.5 billion baht (Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£22 million), according to a study for AOT, which estimated that the work would take six months.
A weekend poll in Thailand found that 48 per cent of people suspected that corruption was the main cause behind the airport’s problems. And 16.5 per cent said that they felt unsafe using it. Alongkorn Pollabutr, the Democrat Party deputy leader, called at the weekend for an investigation into subsidence under the main passenger and cargo terminal.
Sumet Jumsai, one of Thailand’s top architects, however, insists that the airport would have collapsed ‘ corruption or not. Fifteen years ago he had fought against its location on a swamp. ‘Nature is now taking its toll in this swamp, and I feel everyone has got it wrong in the ongoing investigation,’ he said.
‘The bottom line is that with or without corruption the runways and any structure not on piles will be subject to differential settlement and cracks.’
The temporary Government put in place by the junta and led by General Surayud Chu-lanont says that it will report its findings on the runways in two weeks.
Building work on the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, begun in 1904, was delayed 30 years as the marble facade sank into soft soil. It still sinks a few centimetres a year.
Shanghai’s massive construction boom, left, was slowed in 2003 when authorities discovered that parts of the city were sinking one-and-a-half centimetres a year because of the sheer weight of skyscrapers.