(Adds commerce ministry comment in 13th paragraph.)
Oct. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra urged food producers not to raise prices as Bangkok residents started hoarding rice, instant noodles and bottled water amid conflicting government warnings about floods threatening to inundate the capital this week.
Shoppers anticipating floodwaters that have killed at least 281 people north of Bangkok emptied shelves at Tesco Plc and Big C Supercenter Pcl stores in parts of the city. Authorities can’t agree on how severe flooding may be, with Defense Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapa saying “no one can guarantee” the capital will be spared, while the national flood center said the city has a 90 percent chance of avoiding widespread damage.
“We can’t rely on the government,” said Siraporn Nikorata, a 37-year-old nurse who bought 10 bags of rice from a Tesco Lotus supermarket in Bangkok’s Chaeng Wattana district. “No one can guarantee what will happen to Bangkok. We have to take care of ourselves first. I need to protect my family.”
The government is focused on delivering emergency aid to the millions of people displaced by the floods, and protecting assets is a secondary goal, Yingluck said.
“The volume of water is substantial today,” she told reporters in Bangkok. “If we try to block the water, we won’t have enough people to help save lives.”
Oct. 16 through Oct. 18 is the highest risk period for Bangkok, with low-lying areas near Suvarnabhumi airport and communities next to the river and canals the most vulnerable, the city’s Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra said this week. Officials are shoring up flood walls, preparing evacuation plans and readying medical supplies, he said.
The Thai capital has an official population of 6.3 million, excluding unregistered workers. The U.S. Department of State estimates the city’s total population at 9.7 million.
Flood-defense efforts are focused on the Chao Phraya river, whose banks are lined with hotels including the Peninsula and the Shangri-La, as well as the Bank of Thailand.
Work on a new flood barrier will be completed tomorrow, “but we still don’t know whether it can prevent flooding in Bangkok,” Yingluck said today.
Efforts to divert water from the capital may help Bangkok escape widespread flooding, Wim Rungwattanajinda, a spokesman for the national flood center, said by phone yesterday.
“There is a 90 percent chance that Bangkok will not be inundated,” Wim said. “We have monitored water levels around the clock to assess if the barriers can prevent floods. If they can’t, we will provide warnings.”
Thai authorities urged consumers to avoid panic buying, arguing that shortages at some supermarkets are being caused by logistics issues and bulk purchases for flood relief rather than a lack of staple goods.
“We want to ask the public not to panic,” Permanent Secretary for Commerce Yanyong Phuangrach said at a media briefing today. “Producers will continue to make products, so there will be enough to meet demand.”
Yingluck asked producers not to raise product prices, and Yanyong said anyone who did could be fined 140,000 baht ($4,500 and face a jail term of up to 7 years.
“People are suffering,” Yingluck said. “If you raise product prices, people will try to stockpile more food, which will create more problems.”
Floods have cut road and rail links in some parts of the country, complicating efforts to transport goods, said Banyat Kamnoonwat, assistant vice president of CP All Pcl, which operates 6,002 7-Eleven outlets in the country.
Necessities including rice, water and instant noodles are still available, and the company has stored supplies to meet an expected increase in demand, he said today by phone.
“When consumers see empty shelves, that intensifies worries and spurs hoarding,” Somchai Pornrattanacharoen, president of the Wholesale and Retail Association, said yesterday. “Increased production by some manufacturers isn’t enough to meet demand, and replenishing stockpiles usually take one to three days.”
Some residents aren’t waiting to see whether store shelves will be restocked.
“I need to go to another supermarket because, as you see, there is not much left here,” said Siraporn, who was shopping for water, noodles and canned seafood and is considering evacuating her children and grandmother to the island of Hua Hin this week. “They should be safe there.”
--Editors: Tony Jordan, Patrick Harrington
To contact the reporters on this story: Suttinee Yuvejwattana in Bangkok at email@example.com; Supunnabul Suwannakij in Bangkok at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Jordan at email@example.com