Thailand flood defenses divide Bangkok

The Sam Wa canal breach highlights a growing divide over whether Thailand's flood defenses should be used to protect the heart of Bangkok at the expense of outer suburbs and towns to the north.

Adrees Latif/Reuters
Residents use a boat as a means of transport through the flood waters in Bangkok's Bang Phlat district on Tuesday. 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.

An uneasy calm prevailed today along the Sam Wa canal in northern Bangkok after Thailand's government acquiesced to angry locals who wanted to hack a one-yard-wide opening in a sluice gate along the canal. The hole will allow their flooded suburbs to drain – but threaten flooding in the heart of the city.

For more than two months Thailand has been inundated with the worst flooding the country has seen in decades, in some places deeper than five feet. Almost 400 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands of others displaced. Bangkok, the economic hub of the country, has been relatively spared from massive flooding, protected by a system of barricades and canals.

However, partly because of the barricades, the water inundating the suburbs surrounding the city hasn't been able to properly drain, frustrating residents and forcing a debate on the ethics of protecting the canal-lined heart of Bangkok at the expense of the suburbs.

Thailand authorities announced yesterday at a press conference that most of the risk to inner Bangkok had passed as high tides in the Gulf of Thailand receded. However, the Bangkok city administration today painted a different picture, claiming that the new man-made breach could put previously dry parts of the city at risk, and slammed the national government for what the city authorities see as giving in to pressure from Sam Wa locals.

"Previously, we thought that 19 districts might not experience flooding but now none of them will be safe," said Deputy City Gov. Thirachon Manomaipiboon.

The new Sam Wa canal opening remains small, but now allows floodwater to run under a bridge and on toward southern city districts yet to be flooded. People living close to the canal and in fetid-smelling flooded areas behind the canal opening believe that this will relieve existing flooding in their areas, 20 miles from the heart of Bangkok.

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"I just paid for our new house last week,” says Patrick Maher, who has lived in Thailand for the past 10 years with his wife and their two children. He is standing on a bridge overlooking the water. “We're not flooded yet, but the next street is, and the smell from the water is too much.” He says that if the gate was not open, his home would have been flooded by now.

Below the bridge, some 20 riot police sit in the shade, out of the way of the 93 degree F. midday sun, with shields and batons stacked behind them. Sitisak Pongthanarak, deputy police chief in the district, says that before the opening, people were protesting and threatening to destroy the entire sluice gate. Now, he says the opening “has satisfied the people here.”

But some are less convinced that it's a good thing. Housewife Thanawan lives just across the bridge in the path of the newly released flood runoff, which has run almost a foot of water so far into her canal-bank garden and home. “I am very angry at this hole, and with the government,” she says giving a tour of her sodden home to one journalist.

Another resident of the previously dry side of the Sam Wa divide says, “I don't care so much if my home is flooded, as it is not fair that all the water is kept over there.” Pointing north toward the suburbs, which have now been under water for more than a week, he adds, “People inside [the flood zone] will get hurt if we don't let the water go. They should lift the whole gate all the way up."

One of the new high-risk frontline flood zones is the Bang Chan industrial estate, about five miles south of Sam Wa. Aniruk Jekjuntuek told the Monitor this afternoon that “98 percent of the complex has been evacuated,” as he and other workers quick-stepped crates of office supplies onto a waiting truck, up and over a six-foot-high sandbag barrier running across the front gate.

Mr. Aniruk, who said he is coordinating the evacuation, added that he is not angry at the action taken by people at Sam Wa, which could flood the factories and offices at Bang Cha. “The bigger picture is that it would be better all-around if some people do not suffer, just to save other areas, even here," he says.

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