Thais tense as floods set to swamp more of capital

Thailand`s worst flooding in five decades has killed at least 356 people and affected nearly 2.5 million.

Bangkok: More districts of Thailand`s capital were on high alert on Monday with floods bearing down from northern Bangkok and authorities faced a race against time 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, testing flood defences and spilling out of bulging 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 industrialised provinces of Pathum Thani, Nonthaburi and Ayutthaya on the fringes of the Bangkok are the worst hit, but with rivers and canals at a constant risk of bursting, the city of at least 12 million is on edge.

Floods in northern Bangkok were seen as inevitable with most canal gates opened since Friday, diverting an estimated eight million cubic meters of water each day around the east and west and centre of Bangkok via the vast Chao Phraya River, in which water levels had reached a seven-year high.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra`s government and Bangkok authorities have been at odds over managing the crisis and have been accused of sending conflicting signals or playing down the threat.

But Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra was blunt in his assessment, saying residents in six more northern areas should protect their belongings and be ready to get out.

Crisis time

"After assessing all indicators, we found 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."

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 the high tide at the end of the month.

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

The crisis could potentially dent Thailand`s reputation as an attractive destination for foreign investment, with seven industrial zones, which some experts say could have been saved if warnings were issued early enough, shut down.

Two more industrial estates in the Bangkok metropolitan area with a combined 344 factories were at risk of being inundated. The Labour 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.

Thailand`s Commerce Ministry was expected to soon announce a package of incentives to industrial firms, such as tax cuts, soft loans and other privileges.

The situation remained dire in Pathum Thani and Ayutthaya, where there were as many boats as cars along main roads. There were shortages of food and water and warnings were issued about crocodiles swimming in residential areas, with at least six captured or killed over the weekend.

The government has been accused of sacrificing those provinces to protect the affluent business districts of Bangkok, a city that accounts for 41 percent of Thailand`s GDP.

Sukhumbhand said the capital needed to be saved because it was the country`s economic and administrative heart.

"It doesn`t mean that I don`t care about people outside Bangkok," he said. "I need to protect Bangkok, as the safety of Bangkok means the safety of the whole country."

Bureau Report