Bangkok floodwaters threaten Thailand's economy

As the most severe floodwaters in decades threaten to drown Bangkok's most famous market, observers worry that Thailand’s economy will also suffer.

Apichart Weerawong/AP
A man (bottom l.) walks after parking his car on an overfly near a flooded street in Bangkok, Thailand on Oct. 24.

All across Bangkok – which satellite images show to be a virtual island surrounded by the country’s worst floods in decades – shops are running out of drinking water and nonperishable food as 10 million residents stock-up amid reports of a pending citywide deluge.

And as the city attempts to divert waters in an effort to minimize damages to Thailand's economic hub of Bangkok, Tinnakorn Rujinarong oversees workmen banging together a yard-high barrier meant to keep the floodwaters out of one of the world's biggest flea-markets and one of Thailand's best-known attractions.

Most weekends some 200,000 people sweat and haggle their way through the sauna-like narrow alleys running between Chatuchak Market's 10,000 shops. “Around 100 million baht is spent here every weekend,” says Mr. Tinnakorn, who is the market's deputy director.

As floodwaters threaten to drown the market, observers worry that Thailand’s economy will also suffer.

Barclays Capital estimates that the floods will shave almost 1 percent off Thailand's economic growth for 2011. Bangkok City Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra told TV viewers last night that six additional city districts, including Chatuchak, should prepare to evacuate.

The waters threatening the market are now surging around the city's old international airport, raising the possibility that the temporary flood relief management center set up at the airport by the Thai Government will itself have to be evacuated.

Adding to fears has been the conflicting and contradictory messages regarding the predicted severity of the flooding. Government flood relief officials have issued less-alarmist warnings than those coming from city authorities. And now there are rumors of a partisan row over the flood management between the Bangkok governor – a member of the Democrat Party that lost the Thai elections in July 2011 – and the newly elected Peua Thai (For Thais)-led Government of Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted former leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

Elsewhere, citizens in the suburbs are reportedly tampering with barriers that protect urban neighborhoods, amid rumors that canal openings and barriers were being deployed to save the capital's main business centers and consequently divert more water to suburban areas, as the government attempts to divert a mass of water around the city center and into the Gulf of Thailand.

As uncertainty prevails over how much of the city will be flooded, Prime Minister Yingluck said over the weekend that the waters could take six weeks to go down. This means it could be a long wait to assess the full damage to the city, which accounts for 40 percent of Thailand's economy.

Some northern suburbs are already under knee- to chest-high waters. Nearby towns such as the old Siamese capital Ayutthaya are swamped and residents are fearful of crocodiles and pythons lurking in the rising waters.

Corporations such as Apple, Honda, Toyota, and Western Digital have been forced to suspend operations, which will likely disrupt global supply chains given Thailand's role in sectors such as automobiles and computers.

Still, back in Bangkok there is some hope that it won’t be as bad as feared. One coffee-stall owner says she is ready to keep her shop open even if the Charoen Nakhon road outside, less than 100 yards from the river, is flooded. Pointing at the new barrier nailed onto the small shop opening, she says, “I hope the water does not come, and if it does, stays lower than this.”

At the nearby riverside Peninsula Hotel, the water lapped a foot away the hotel. Hotel staffer Aom Kanchanawarin says that her home in Pasicharoen district is also vulnerable. “We will move to the second floor later,” she says, “and we have bought a small boat in case we need to move and we can help others.”

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