Wednesday, 12 May 2010
Dispatches from Bangkok. Challenges in a Mega City !
Early morning in Sukhumvit Road Bangkok
After being in Kuala Lumpur for 4 days last week, Jakarta for the weekend and now in Bangkok, it is such a joy to be in this vibrant and hospitable city.
Bangkok is one of my favourite cities, having first visited in March 1975.
This morning I went for a walk. Here is my dispatch:
At first light I head out of my hotel on Soi 5, Sukhumvit. I had only gone 50 metres when I saw three heavily armed soldiers, chatting peacefully to locals. One is drinking a cup of coffee. A tourist with a camera, quietly creeps closer to soldiers, and snaps a picture. Our security instructions tell us not to turn right as the stand-off between the anti-Govt Red Shirts and Govt are taking place not far away. On May 8 two Thai policemen were killed and 13 wounded in a gun and grenade attacks. The headlines in the papers this morning announce that the PM has told the Reds to leave today. I hope we don’t see more clashes in this usually peaceful city, but I have a feeling it will come to a head in the next 24 hours.
The traffic builds up early morning on Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok
I go onto Sukhumvit Road and walk by the entrance to Nana Station and head down towards Asok. First I thread my way through the sidewalk clothing market, next my nostrils are filled with spice-filled clouds of smoke billowing from barbecues cooking chicken, fish and other tasty looking morsels. The street is beginning to fill with people walking elegantly to work.
A young lady comes up to me and asks if I want a massage. I say no, but she persists, and puts her arm round my waist. I politely remove her arm and she goes away. It is just after 6 a.m.
There are more buskers and beggars on the streets than I recall on my last visit in 2009.
Foodstalls on the pavement serve delicious food.
Before the Westin hotel I am engulfed in more clouds of smoke coming from a bevy of people cooking breakfast on barbecues. I pass Asok station and turn left into Asok Road. A Monk in saffron robes has a bowl in his outstretched arms waiting for food. A Nun, 20 metres away, in a drab grey robe is also asking for food.
Suddenly I am in the midst of the fruit and vegetable market, where exotic mouth-watering fruits bunch, hang and attract. The jostling worsens as more the shoppers tangle with workers hurrying to offices and factories. Clangs, slams and crashes come from adjacent building sites. It's a busy city.
I am attracted by a sign outside an unusual building, and it reads 'Siam Culture Centre by Royal Appointment.' As opening hours were 9 a.m., I am not allowed in.
Outdoor side walk cafes serve food to hungry workers and beside, butchers chop meat, bakers roll dough and cooks stir huge woks.
A ticket seller on the roadside.
After a few kms, I retrace my steps back Soi 5 and go through the alley which connects to Soi 3. Three north African women, dressed in burhka and veils charge towards me like a rugby front row and I step aside. Men in long white robes and colourful head scarves and turbans drink coffee in small cafes. Many of the signs are in Arabic and most of the people are from the Middle east and North Africa.
A small flower market in Sukhumvit.
My early morning walk in Sukhumvit is over, and I go back to the hotel to prepare for the day. The second day of a conference of preparing for our Red Cross programmes in South East Asia.
With troops and opposition factions at a standoff just down the road from my hotel, an increasingly polluted city, the water in the shower in the hotel a brownish colour and the jostling of people for space shows yet again that the escalating human vulnerability is among the many challenges facing people in cities and other densely populated areas around the globe. Yet the urban way of life also presents enormous opportunities and can serve as an engine of social inclusion, cultural expression, diversity and economic growth. But the challenges for the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are many.
Violence, poverty, food shortages, insufficient health care, (including a shortage of safe blood) inadequate access to water and sanitation are just some of the challenges facing city politicians, administrators and the Red Cross in these mega cities.
For the first time, more than 50% of the world’s population is living in urban areas, a figure that is forecast to rise to more than 60% in 2030. Cities in the developing world are expected to account for 95% of urban growth over the next two decades.
Last Saturday (May 8) in a small community in South Jakarta, I celebrated World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, with the Jakarta Chapter of the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI). We focussed attention on both the challenges and opportunities presented by urbanization. All around the world, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are working with city leaders and civil society to address urban challenges by aiming at their root causes. They focus on promoting diversity, opposing discrimination, and joining in efforts to provide decent social services –including the high quality of blood donor service-- and to ensure that adequate protection, preventive health-care, education and disaster risk reduction measures are taken. Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers are at the heart of the Movement's endeavours to strengthen urban communities.
The community we celebrated World Red Cross day in South Jakarta are doing something about the urban challenges. One Red Cross volunteer had given up her home for the weekend and converted it into a blood donor centre where over a hundred people gave blood for local hospitals, where there is always a shortage. A village drama team enacted a drama about climate change and the need to protect the environment. Hundreds of school children and their parents watched and learned.
I was proud that my organisation, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Indonesia, continues to support PMI to address these urban challenges, for instance undertaking integrated community based risk reduction (ICBRR) in four large villages in West and East Jakarta, as well as supporting the PMI on its Human Pandemic Preparedness (H2P) programme.
We are also supporting the PMI in the scaling up their blood programme nation-wide. The lack of safe blood is a problem in many densely populated areas around the world
So my walk through Bangkok this morning exposed to me the good and bad of incrreasing urbanisation. We must unite and work to improve the quality of life in Asia's mega-cities, or we will see increasing poverty, marginalization of certain sectors, and more violence.