Amid mixed messages, floods threaten Thailand’s economy – Christian Science Monitor

Putting a flood barrier up at an entrance to Bangkok's Chatuchak market on Monday afternoon (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

BANGKOK – Standing over the clanging hammers and ripping saws, Tinnakorn Rujinarong watched workmen bang together a yard-high barrier meant to keep looming floodwaters – which have killed over 350 people and swamped an area the size of Northern Ireland – out of one of the world’s biggest flea-markets and one of Thailand’s best-known attractions.

Most weekends, around 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.

Across the city – which satellite images show to be a virtual island surrounded by floods to the north and the Gulf of Thailand to the south – shops are running out of drinking water and non-perishable food, with various chains saying that they are having difficulty in replenishing barren shelves as 10 million residents stock-up amid fears of a citywide deluge.

Barclays Capital estimates that the floods will shave almost 1% off Thailand’s economic growth for 2011, and whether Chatuchak opens next weekend is anyone’s guess. Walls were stood up at the market perimeter on Monday afternoon, after Bangkok city governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra told TV viewers last night that six additional city districts, including Chatuchak, should get ready to evacuate.

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

There have been conflicting and contradictory messages coming from various officials and bodies, with flood relief officials issuing less-alarmist warnings than those

Sandbags down as the Chao Praya water goes up (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

coming from city authorities, and rumours abounding of a partisan row – always an alarm bell in politically-divided Thailand – over the flood management between the Bangkok governor, a member of the Democrat Party that lost the Thai elections in July 2011 – and the Peua Thai (For Thais)-led Government of Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted former leader Thaksin.

Elsewhere, in places, residents sought to alter barriers to protect neighbourhoods, as word spread that canal openings and barriers were being deployed to save the capital’s main business centres, meaning that more suburban areas would likely be deluged as a consequence of attempts to divert a mass of water around the city centre and into the Gulf of Thailand.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said over the weekend that the waters could take six weeks to wash away, meaning it could be a long wait to see how much of the sprawling city, which accounts for 40% of Thailand’s economy, will succumb. Some northern suburbs are under knee-to -chest high waters, with nearby towns such as the old Siamese capital Ayutthaya already swamped and residents 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, a likely disruption to global supply chains given Thailand’s role in sectors such as automobiles and computers.

Walling-up at coffeeshop on Charoen Nakhon road, close to the river (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Back in Bangkok alongside the Chao Praya river – now swelling precariously and seeping over barriers in places – multistory luxury hotels, postcard-standard temples and small businesses sit side-by-side, with fresh-mixed concrete being poured into shuttering nailed onto shopfronts.

Quickly mixing four of the large ice-coffees preferred by many Bangkokians, coffee-stall owner Yung, who preferred not to give her full name, said she is ready to keep her shop open even if the river flows into the Charoen Nakhon road outside, less than 100 yards from the river. Pointing at the new barrier nailed onto the small shop opening, she said “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 below the wall, meaning that the below-the-water-line bottom floor of the complex looks safe – for now. Hotel staffer Aom Kanchanawarin said that her home in Pasicharoen district is vulnerable, however. “We will move to the second floor later,” she said, “and we have bought a small boat in case we need to move and we can help others”.

Flood relief fundraising at Holy Redeemer Church in Bangkok (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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