Thailand wades through worst flooding in decades

Thailand's floodwaters have already killed 269 people and submerged some 3.4 million acres of farmland to the north. And Bangkok's estimated 12 million residents are bracing for another storm.

Apichart Weerawong/AP
Flood sufferers disembark from boats at a bridge after being rescued by Thai authorities in Ayutthaya province, central Thailand, Tuesday. Thailand is counting the multibillion dollar cost of nationwide flooding that has killed 269 people and may yet cause more havoc as waters threaten to engulf the country's capital.

Shoveling sand into canvas bags, Thawatchai Siithundoin wipes the sweat from his brow and looks up at the darkening late afternoon sky.

“If it rains again, that canal will fill my house,” he says, pointing to the water lapping the roadside about four yards behind him in the northern Bangkok suburb of Rangsit.

Before possible rains hit tonight, he plans to install a 3-foot-high barrier around his canal-side house, which sits below ground-level.

Mr. Siithundoin is just one of Bangkok's estimated 12 million residents bracing for floods that have already killed 269 people and submerged some 3.4 million acres of farmland to the north. And not far from his house, authorities in the low-lying Thai capital are also frantically trying to put up flood-walls to stem the rising water, which threatens to inundate the city throughout the coming days.

Thailand's National Flood Relief Center Chief Pracha Promnok said on Tuesday that rainfall levels during the coming days could be critical in determining whether Bangkok floods striking a potential blow to Thailand's already suffering economy.

With factories closed and tourists warned to steer clear, Supavud Saicheua, an analyst at the Phatra Securites investment firm estimates that in the past few days the country could have lost between 0.4 and 0.7 percent of GDP.

“Bangkok is 40 percent of the country's economy," Mr. Saicheua says, adding, “but nonetheless the focus first has to be on public safety and ensuring no more lives are lost.”

According to the latest weather bureau forecast this evening, there will be widespread rainfall in the Central Plain and Bangkok areas on Wednesday. And a high tide over the weekend is likely to add to the deadly flooding that already hit regions to the north.

Tourism and manufacturing hit hard

Tourism makes up around 6 percent of Thailand's economy, and it took a hit in 2010 due to two months of street-based political unrest in the heart of Bangkok. The floods have inundated the old Siamese capital Ayutthaya, usually a major tourist draw for its temple ruins. And the flooding has forced companies such as Honda and Toyota to suspend operations in Thailand, a major car manufacturing location.

The floods have already been widely-described as the worst in Thailand's modern history, though some of the affected regions are close to riverbanks and on floodplains, so experience flooding from time to time. A 1988 flood killed over 600 people, and in 1995, 231 died in flooding.

Neck-deep water

On Sunday, rescuers evacuated the Ayutthaya hospital after levees gave way, swamping parts of the city in chest and neck deep water. There, Thai Red Cross volunteer Pipath Cheangoi watched military load elderly patients onto big-wheel trucks outside the hospital gates. He told the Monitor that “it is a big shock for Thailand that this town is flooded.”

Back in Bangkok, the government has set up a flood relief base at the city old international airport where even political rivals are working together. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the opposition leader, conferred on flood aid and prevention in front of the cameras.

Downstairs, hundreds of volunteers packed clothes and stacked crates of food and water for distribution to some of the estimated 8.2 million Thais affected by the flooding. Mam Singprasong, a teacher at Phetkasem Management Technology College, supervised a group of her students ladling spicy chicken broth into sachets to send to flood-hit areas. “Some of the girls asked me if they could come here to help,” she told the Monitor. “Some have family in the country, in the flooded areas.”

Not far from that airport, Bangkok's notoriously slow traffic sloshed through waters already welling-up on the Vibhavadi Road, as businesses and restaurants stacked more sandbags along the pavement.

Elsewhere in the city, at the country's main international airport, flood protection walls have been raised to a height of up to 3.5 meters, acting director Somchai Sawasdipol told Agence France Presse, who added: "I am confident [that we can prevent floods at Suvarnabhumi] but we will not be careless."

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