/ 1 November 2011

Thai Cabinet plots recovery as floods raise victims’ ire

Thai Cabinet Plots Recovery As Floods Raise Victims' Ire

Thai authorities tried to stem growing anger among victims of catastrophic floods on Tuesday as water flooded new neighbourhoods and the government plotted a recovery aimed at securing the long-term confidence of investors.

The floods began in July and have devastated large parts of the central Chao Phraya river basin, killed nearly 400 people and disrupted the lives of more than two million.

Inner Bangkok, protected by a network of dikes and sandbag walls, survived peak tides on the weekend and remains mostly dry.

But large volumes of water are sliding across the land to the north, east and west of the city, trying to reach the sea and diverted by the city centre’s defences into new suburbs as they recede in others.

In one northeastern city neighbourhood angry residents have been demanding the opening of a sluice gate to let water out of their inundated community.

Residents jostled with police on Monday and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ordered that the gate be opened by one metre (three feet).

But city authorities have warned that the flow through the sluice gate could move via a canal into large parts of the city which are now dry, including an industrial estate.

“We are opposed to it but the government has ordered the BMA to open the gate, so more water will come,” said Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) spokesperson Jate Sopitpongstorn.

“It could reach the Bang Chan industrial estate. We have to see the consequences,” he told Reuters.

Yingluck’s government and the Bangkok authority represent opposing factions in Thailand’s strife-plagued politics.

The disaster has been the first big test for the government of Yingluck, the younger sister of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

Yingluck, a political novice, took over this year after an election that many Thais hoped would heal divisions that triggered street violence last year.

Saving Bangkok from a ruinous flood would be an important victory. The city’s 12-million people account for 41% of Thailand’s gross domestic product.

Industry Minister Wannarat Channukul said the situation at the Bang Chan industrial estate and others including the Lat Krabang estate near Bangkok’s main airport was not critical.

“We can handle it,” he told reporters.

But prolonged misery in outlying areas and heavily flooded provinces to the north would take the gloss off any victory for Yingluck, especially given a perception that those areas have been sacrificed to save the centre of the capital.

To the north of Bangkok, Pathum Thani and Ayutthaya provinces have been largely inundated for weeks, along with seven industrial estates that have sprung up over the last two decades on what used to be the central plain’s rice fields.

People eked out a living in Pathum Thani on Tuesday with women cooking over gas stoves in the shade of plastic sheets strung up over pick-up trucks while barefoot men cast fishing nets into water covering what used to be busy roads.

Roofs of shanties poked above the surface nearby.

Cars, trucks and taxis were bumper to bumper for about 20 km (12 miles) on an elevated road out of Bangkok, parked and abandoned safely above the murky tide.

Yingluck, holding a cabinet meeting to work out a recovery plan, said on Monday it should take three months to get the flooded industrial estates back on their feet.

Thailand is the second-largest exporter of computer hard drives and global prices are rising because of a flood-related shortage of major components used in personal computers.

Thailand is also Southeast Asia’s main auto-parts maker and Japan’s Honda Motor Co said car production could be difficult in the second half of its business year ending in March. Its Ayutthaya plant has suspended work indefinitely.

Yingluck said she had assured Japanese investors of steps to prevent a repeat of disaster from the annual rainy season.

The cabinet is discussing a recovery plan, including for an overhaul of the water-management system and the rehabilitation of industrial estates, that Energy Minister Pichai Naripthaphan said would cost up to $30-billion.

The Bank of Thailand has nearly halved its projection of economic growth this year to 2.6% from July’s 4.1% estimate, and said the economy — Southeast Asia’s second largest — would shrink by 1.9% in the December quarter from the previous three months due to the floods.

The floods submerged 1.6-million hectares, an area roughly the size of Kuwait, and destroyed 25% of the main rice crop in the world’s largest rice exporter.

The deluge was caused in part by unusually heavy monsoon rain falling on a low-lying region, but the weather has been largely clear for a week as the cooler dry season begins.

The BMA said 2 245 mm of rain had fallen this year through to the end of October, 40.8% above average. — Reuters