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Thai PM calls for unity to defend capital from floods

world Updated: Oct 22, 2011 12:04 IST

Reuters
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Thailand's prime minister called for all agencies to collaborate to protect the capital from a potential deluge of floodwater on Saturday as thousands fled high-risk areas or scrambled to protect their homes.

Thailand's worst flooding in 50 years has been threatening to hit Bangkok for several days and Yingluck Shinawatra's government was pinning its hopes on diverting floodwaters from the north around the city and into the sea.

Bangkok was clear and sunny for a second day on Saturday, but the threat of heavy rain still loomed large, with defence walls holding, for now, and canals already full to the brim carrying millions of cubic metres of water towards the sea. "The water is coming close to Bangkok," Yingluck said in a televised address on Saturday.

"All agencies have to be united where tackling the runoff is concerned, because successfully diverting the water to drain into the sea via east Bangkok would hinge on all relevant agencies moving in a concerted effort."

The floods have killed at least 342 people since July and devastated seven industrialised areas to the north of Bangkok, inflicting damage estimated at least $3.3 billion and putting tens of thousands of Thais temporarily out of work.

Myanmar has suffered at least 100 deaths and Cambodia, 247 as a result of severe flooding.

Thailand's central bank said on Thursday and that 2011 economic growth might be about 3 % rather than the 4.1 % it had previously forecast.

Finance minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala had a gloomier forecast for Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy and said growth might be barely 2 % this year.

Thais across Bangkok moved electrical equipment and possessions to higher ground and tens of thousands of cars were moved to bridges and elevated roads, with the city's looping network of highways turned into car parks.

Supermarkets and convenience stores were empty of bottled water and instant noodles. People were seen buying up sacks of ice which they were melting into drinking water.

Many of the city's thousands of street restaurants were shuttered on Saturday, and some people using social media complained of food shortages in areas already flooded.

The old airport in northern Don Muang area was turned into an evacuation centre, taking in more than 3,000 people who slept in departure lounges or tents pitched in the arrivals hall.

PRESSURE PILES ON PM
Across some roads in northern Bangkok, water was seeping out of underground drains, with steel manhole covers seen hovering above the ground.

The crisis has become a major test for the politically inexperienced, 44-year-old Yingluck, whose government has been widely criticised for mismanaging the crisis and sending conflicting signals to the public.

A week ago, the government said Bangkok was in the clear. Now, it is warning residents to prepare themselves.

One obstacle for Yingluck is her need to rely on political rivals and the military to cooperate and coordinate to protect the city and regulate water flowing through sluice gates, estimated at 8-10 million cubic metres each day.

Bangkok's metropolitan authority is controlled by the opposition Democrat Party, while the military has a frosty relationship with the ruling Puea Thai Party because of its de facto leader and Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former premier overthrown by the army in 2006.

Yingluck has also been at odds with Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra over jurisdiction and how to tackle the floods. She said on Saturday it was vital the government and city authorities acted as one instead of criticising each other.

Some rain was expected on Sunday and thunderstorms in the days after, according to the Meteorological Department. It was not known whether enough water could be diverted in the coming days to prevent the city from flooding once the rain comes.

Bangkok has so far escaped the full force of the flooding, with the industrialised fringe provinces of Ayutthaya, Pathum Thani and Nonthaburi among the worst hit, with water levels as high as two metres and people seen people packed into boats and some residents believed to be stuck in their homes.

A total of 27 of Thailand's 77 provinces are affected, with water covering an area 16 times the size of Hong Kong.

The potential economic damage from serious flooding in the city of at least 12 million people is huge, with Bangkok accounting for 41 % of gross domestic product.

Manufacturing plants in the northern outskirts of Bangkok have ceased operations, affecting foreign firms with production bases inside the kingdom and disrupting supply chains.

A cut in production of computer hard drives threatens to disrupt some manufacturers as soon as December, hurting tech giants like Intel , Apple and Dell.

Thailand is a also big regional hub for the car makers and most are suffering disruption, with Japanese car makers trimming output by about 6,000 units a day.

Analysts also estimate that about 2 million tonnes of milled rice may have been ruined in Thailand, the world's top rice exporter and traders, with delays in loading rice for export.