Thailand races to defend Bangkok from floods

Wednesday, 12 October 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

PATHUM THANI (Reuters): Thailand raced on Tuesday to build floodwalls on the outskirts of Bangkok to prevent the worst floods in half a century from inundating parts of the capital later this week when water flowing from the north reaches the low-lying city.

At least 269 people have been killed by heavy monsoon rains, floods and mudslides that have battered 27 of Thailand’s 77 provinces since late July, according to the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation

Much of Thailand’s north, northeast and central plains are flooded, affecting 2.3 million people. Bangkok -- only two metres (6.5 ft) above sea level -- could be next if water overflowing from reservoirs in the north arrives at the same time as high estuary tides are due from Oct. 13.

Rescue workers hastily built a floodwall in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok, where strong currents burst a river embankment overnight, flooding homes in water at least two metres high.

Lerpong Kaewsrichan, deputy governor of Pathum Thani province, said the water had mostly submerged farmland and two industrial estates in the area had been spared for now.

“Water didn’t flood into the economic zone. We’re trying our best to protect our economic zones,” he said.

About 2,000 people crammed into an evacuation centre in Pathum Thani, most from the neighbouring province of Ayutthaya, one of the worst affected.

Nearly 198 factories in a sprawling industrial estate there, including an assembly plant of Honda Motor Co Ltd , have closed after floodwater breached a wall of sandbags at the weekend. Nikon Corp said it has halted a digital SLR camera production site due to flooding.

Toyota Motor said it halted operations at all three Thai factories.

Thailand is a major production centre for many of the world’s biggest car manufacturers. Their assembly plants are mostly in eastern Rayong province, which has not been badly hit, but there is bound to be disruption because car part makers elsewhere have been affected.

About 3.4 million acres (1.38 million hectares) of farm land is under water -- about 13 times the size of Hong Kong -- and more then 700,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged.

The final quarter of the year is the high season for Thailand’s big tourist sector. The ancient capital of Ayutthaya is flooded and the popular northern city of Chiang Mai has also been hit, suggesting tourism may take a big hit.

Despite the disruption to road and rail travel to the north, Tourism Minister Chumphol Silpa-archa played down the impact as he headed into a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

“At least 39,000 foreign travellers are still coming to Thailand every day. They’re choosing to visit other areas and travel by air,” he told reporters.

The cabinet agreed to cut current government spending by 10 percent for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1 and divert the funds -- around 80 billion baht ($2.6 billion)-- to relief work. The government still aims to keep its budget deficit at the planned level of 350 billion baht, officials said.

Finance Minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala said on Monday the central bank had put the initial cost of the damage caused by the floods at 60 billion baht ($1.9 billion), about 0.6 percent of GDP.

His ministry has put damage at 69 billion baht and cut its economic growth forecast for this year to 3.7 percent from 4.0 percent due to the floods and the global economic slowdown.

Economists at HSBC said the floods may shave up to one percentage point off estimated 4.9 percent year-on-year economic growth in the fourth quarter, although they expected reconstruction to boost demand in the first half of next year.

The Commerce Ministry has cut its estimate of the main rice crop, harvesting of which started this month, to 21 million tonnes from 25 million because of flooding. Thailand is the world’s biggest producer of the grain.