Flood threat wanes, but Bangkok’s not out of woods yet

Receding floodwaters north of Bangkok have reduced the threat to the Thai capital, the prime minister said on Saturday, but a rise in coastal high tides in the Gulf of Thailand will still test the city’s flood defences.

“If things go on like this, we expect floodwater in Bangkok to recede within the first week of November,” Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said on national television.

Bangkok’s main waterway, the Chao Phraya River, overflowed its banks on Saturday in some areas during unusually high tides, flooding normally bustling Chinatown and streets around Bangkok’s glittering Grand Palace and Temple of the Reclining Buddha, areas usually thronged with tourists.

Buildings across Bangkok have been sand-bagged for protection. Many residents have fled the city or stocked up on water, food, boots, life jackets and even boats.

Thailand’s worst floods in half a century have killed 381 people since July, wiped out a quarter of the main rice crop in the world’s biggest exporter, forced up global prices of computer hard drives and caused delays in global auto production after destroying industrial estates.

The death toll rose overnight when a boat carrying a family of four capsized in strong winds, drowning the father, mother and eldest son in 3m floodwater. Their six-year-old daughter, the only one wearing a life vest, survived.

They had been ferrying their son from work in Ayutthaya, a flood-ravaged province west of Bangkok where every district has been inundated for nearly two months.

In Bangkok, prices of eggs have quadrupled as jittery residents stockpile staples, but the government said flood victims would have enough bottled drinking water, dairy products, pork and chicken.

Cash was also in heavy demand. The Bank of Thailand has repeated that there is enough money circulating to meet demand for three months following a crush of withdrawals. Nearly 400 bank branches have closed across the country due to the floods.

The floods have submerged 1.6-million hectares of land, an area roughly the size of Kuwait or Swaziland, turning entire cities into urban reservoirs.

Yingluck said the ebbing of floodwaters in northern provinces, thanks to the draining of water into the Gulf of Thailand through canals and pumps, had reduced the risk of large volumes of run-off water bearing down on Bangkok. The city sits only 2m above sea level.

“In this critical situation, there is some good news for us. Our water-management plan went smoothly during previous days,” Yingluck said.

Rafts built from water bottles
Although Yingluck expressed confidence inner Bangkok could be spared, the city’s suburbs faced a growing crisis.

Local authorities expect Thonburi, a district on the west bank of the Chao Phraya, to be inundated within three days and Yingluck said levels should remain high due to a lack of canals. Seventeen roads across Bangkok are already closed.

Densely populated Pingklao, packed with restaurants and shops in Thonburi close to the river, was under waist-high water. Some residents waded through the floods, hauling televisions and furniture on their backs to higher ground.

People in Bangkok’s northern Sai Mai district sat on makeshift rafts built of water bottles and wooden crates. Owners of small shops perched on small sandbag walls, staring out at roads turned into swamps.

Water levels appeared to have risen at the riverside Bang Phlad district, with phone booths submerged and many people now using boats. Water was seen creeping towards a road bridge where scores of cars and buses were parked and abandoned.

The Chao Phraya is expected to rise to as much as 2.6m above sea level at the weekend during high tides, the government said this week when it declared a five-day holiday from Thursday to allow people to leave.

Many foreign governments have warned their citizens against non-essential travel to the city of 12 million people, one of Asia’s largest. City hotels have emptied. Many locals have headed for the seaside town of Hua Hin and the eastern resort city of Pattaya, where hotel rooms are scarce.

Bangkok’s governor ordered the evacuation of another district, Thawi Whatthana, in western Bangkok late on Friday. Evacuations have now taken place in four of Bangkok’s 50 districts — Don Muang, Bang Phlat, Sai Mai and Thawi Whatthana.

Japanese engineers have been flown in to advise on how to protect Bangkok’s main international airport, Suvarnabhumi, and the city’s subway system. Authorities have built a 23.5km dike around the airport and have reassured travellers it would be safe.

Bangkok, which accounts for 41% of Thailand’s $319-billion economy, has been at risk from run-off water from the north coinciding with the high tide on the Chao Phraya, already at a record high level.

The economic toll continued to mount in Thailand, the second-largest exporter of computer hard drives and Southeast Asia’s biggest auto production hub. Global prices for hard drives, for instance, are rising due to a flood-related shortage of major components used in personal computers.

Drive manufacturers have raised prices by 20% to 40% after water poured into factories this month, said Chuck Kostalnick, Senior Vice President of international electronics distributor Avnet Inc.

“The word we’re getting is that prices are going to continue to go up,” he told Reuters. “This isn’t going to be a one-time event.” — Reuters

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