Thais tense as floods set to swamp more of capital

Tuesday, 25 October 2011 00:58 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

BANGKOK (Reuters): More districts of Thailand’s capital were on high alert on Monday with floods bearing down from northern Bangkok as authorities raced to pump water toward the sea and defend the business district.

Hundreds of people were evacuated over the weekend as water in residential areas of the northern Lak Si and Don Muang suburbs reached levels as high as two meters (six feet), testing flood defenses and spilling out of swollen canals and rivers.

Thailand’s worst flooding in five decades has killed at least 356 people and affected nearly 2.5 million, with more than 113,000 living in temporary shelters and 720,000 people seeking medical attention.

Central areas and the industrialized provinces of Pathum Thani, Nonthaburi and Ayutthaya on the northern fringes of the Bangkok are the worst hit, but with rivers and canals at a constant risk of bursting, the city of 12 million is on edge.

Floods in northern Bangkok were seen as inevitable with most canal gates opened since Friday, diverting an estimated 8 million cubic meters of water a day around the east and west of the city and down the Chao Phraya river, in which water levels have reached a seven-year high.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) have been at odds over how to manage the crisis and have been accused of sending conflicting signals or playing down the threat.

Yingluck said the process of diverting the water was running smoothly, but Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra took a more alarming tone when he warned residents in six more northern areas to be ready to get out.

“The situation is getting serious and we expect it to get worse,” Sukhumbhand told a news conference. “I have said, if the situation becomes a crisis, I’ll be the first one to tell you, and now I’m telling you.”

The issue has already become politicized with battles over jurisdiction and conflict between the ruling Puea Thai Party and the former ruling Democrat Party-led BMA, which has been accused of trying to discredit Yingluck and turn the catastrophe into a crisis of her leadership. All sides say they are cooperating.

The military, which is helping with relief efforts, also has strained ties with Yingluck and she has refused to declare a state of emergency granting power to the army. Instead, she invoked a disaster law on Friday, giving her full authority over the governor and army chief.

Twenty-eight of Thailand’s 77 provinces are affected, with water covering an area 16 times the size of Hong Kong.

Yingluck said at the weekend it could take as long as six weeks for floods to subside. Authorities were battling to pump water out to sea before high tides at the end of the month.

The economic toll is expected to be high. The central bank has said 2011 growth might be about 3 percent, not 4.1 percent as previously forecast. Some economists say growth in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy could be less than 2 percent.

The crisis could dent Thailand’s reputation as a destination for foreign investment with the closure of seven industrial zones, which some experts say could have been protected if warnings were issued early enough.

Two more industrial estates in the Bangkok metropolitan area with a combined 344 factories were at risk of being inundated. The Labor Ministry estimates more than 650,000 employees are temporarily out of work.

High-tech firms face delays in delivery of computer parts, and the autos sector has been badly affected, particularly Japanese firms, with output trimmed by 6,000 units a day.

Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Kittirat Na-Ranong said on Monday industrial zones operators were expecting to reopen within 45 days of the water receding, but he was unable to give a timeframe for when that would happen.

He said the government would need to create an industry relief fund of about 100 billion baht ($3.2 billion), and international financial institutions and a Japanese organization had offered to contribute.

The situation was dire in Pathum Thani and Ayutthaya, with residents stranded, food shortages and as many boats as cars on roads. Warnings have been issued about crocodiles on the loose, having escaped from farms where they are reared for their skins and meat, with at least six captured or killed over the weekend.

The authorities have been accused of sacrificing those provinces to protect the capital’s affluent business districts. Bangkok accounts for 41 percent of GDP, and the governor said protecting the city must be the country’s priority.

“It doesn’t mean that I don’t care about people outside Bangkok,” Sukhumbhand said. “I need to protect Bangkok, as the safety of Bangkok means the safety of the whole country.”