Bloomberg News

Thai PM Warns ‘50-50’ Chance Inner Bangkok May See Floods

October 26, 2011

(Adds prime minister’s comments in first paragraph.)

Oct. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said a “50-50” chance remained that inner Bangkok would avoid flooding as a deluge approaches the city and a coming high tide pushes up water levels.

“I’m still confident that we can protect Bangkok today,” Yingluck told reporters, adding that authorities would be able to defend the city’s main international airport, Suvarnabhumi. Last night she spelled out a worst-case scenario in a national address, warning that water may “run through the center of Bangkok,” with the severity depending on elevation.

Water levels in parts of Bangkok may reach as high as 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) if a major breach occurs in dikes to the north of the capital, she said, with depths reaching about 50 centimeters in most places, she said. It would take up to a month to drain floodwaters from Bangkok in that case, she said.

Asked today how confident she was that the dikes would hold, Yingluck responded, “50-50.”

Diverting a three-meter-deep wall of water approaching Bangkok is key to sparing the city from the severity of floods that have inundated about 10,000 factories north of the city, disrupting the supply chains of Apple Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp. The effort hinges on the strength of untested dikes, said Adri Verwey, a specialist with Deltares, a Netherlands-based research institute, who is advising Yingluck.

‘High Pressure’

“The problem is the dikes have never been put under such high pressure,” said Verwey, who has been helping advise Thai officials with the support of the Dutch government. “If there are too many breaches, then you will easily have extensive areas with more than a meter of water in downtown Bangkok, especially Sukhumvit, which is very low-lying.’”

Thailand’s government announced yesterday a 5-day holiday starting tomorrow for 21 northern and central provinces including Bangkok to give people time to prepare for flooding. Commercial banks and financial markets will remain open, according to the Bank of Thailand.

“We are trying to encourage people in Bangkok to stay outside the city during this critical period when tides will peak,” city Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra said after Yingluck’s speech. A widespread evacuation of the city of almost 10 million people “is impossible,” he said.

Water levels rose further on Bangkok’s outskirts yesterday as about 4 billion cubic meters of water approached the capital from the north, Sukhumbhand said, raising concern that flood barriers may be inadequate.

‘Bigger Mass’

Rainfall about 25 percent more than the 30-year average filled upstream dams to capacity, prompting authorities to release large amounts of water this month down a flood plain the size of Florida. About 9,850 factories with an investment value of 800 billion baht ($26 billion) have been flooded, said Chalitrat Chandrubeksa, a deputy government spokesman, leaving 660,000 workers at risk of losing their jobs.

The biggest mass of water is still about 30 kilometers north of Bangkok, said Anond Snidvongs, executive director of the government’s Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency. The amount water now seeping into northern Bangkok is “so small we don’t even see it on satellite maps,” he said in an interview yesterday.

“Ten centimeters is not that big of a flood,” Anond, one of Yingluck’s advisers, said as he studied a satellite photograph at the government’s flood operations command. “People in Bangkok don’t see the bigger mass. This is what we are worried about from a strategic point of view.”

Dike Strength Unknown

The government has made progress over the past few days in reducing that bigger pool of water in Pathum Thani, to Bangkok’s north, by diverting it away from the capital and reducing flows into the area, he said. The water level has dropped by 17 centimeters in that time, he said.

“The best-case scenario is that we maintain the situation as it is and all the dikes hold,” Anond said. “We don’t know the probability of that, and I don’t think anyone knows, because we don’t know the strength of the dikes.”

The Chao Phraya river, whose banks are lined with hotels including the Oriental and the Shangri-La, overflowed in some areas after water levels reached a record of 2.30 meters above sea level Oct. 24, exceeding the 2.27-meter peak reached in 1995, Sukhumbhand said yesterday. Bangkok has an average elevation of less than two meters above sea level.

Yingluck had vowed to protect airports, power plants and major transport routes from floodwaters that she said may take six weeks to drain through rivers and Bangkok’s 1,682 canals.

Airport Closure

Don Mueang, the nation’s second-biggest airport and the site of the government’s flood-relief operations, was forced to close yesterday as floodwaters rose, said Kantpat Mangalasiri, the airport’s director. Suvarnabhumi Airport, the nation’s biggest, is operating normally, Airports of Thailand Pcl, which operates the airfield, said yesterday.

At least 373 people have been killed because of seasonal monsoon rains and flooding since July 25, the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation said today. More than 100,000 people are living in about 1,700 government evacuation centers, which can handle as many as 800,000 people, according to government data.

The three-month-old disaster will cut about 1 percentage point from economic growth, causing the economy to expand less than 3 percent this year, central bank Governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul said yesterday. The budget for rehabilitation may exceed 100 billion baht ($3.2 billion), Prasarn said.

Apple, Toyota Disruptions

Companies including Apple, Toyota and Honda Motor Co. are facing the worst supply disruptions since the March earthquake that struck Japan. Thailand makes about a quarter of the world’s hard-disk drives and serves as a production hub for Japanese car makers and electronics firms.

Toyota will maintain its investment in the country, Yukitoshi Funo, the company’s deputy managing director, said after meeting Yingluck yesterday.

Thailand’s Cabinet yesterday approved a plan to provide 325 billion baht of loans to companies and residents affected by the disaster, and will waive corporate income taxes for companies in industrial estates for eight years, Industry Minister Wannarat Charnnukul said.

The three-month-long disaster has severed road and rail links, destroyed crops and shut down some production of food and drinking water, disrupting the ability of supermarkets in the capital to restock shelves. Conflicting warnings about the severity of the crisis have sparked panic buying of water, eggs and instant noodles.

The government will accelerate imports of food, beverages and household items from Southeast Asian countries after flooding reduced local supplies by 40 percent, Permanent Secretary for Commerce Yanyong Phuangrach said yesterday.

--With assistance from Anuchit Nguyen in Bangkok. Editors: Nicholas Wadhams, Patrick Harrington

To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at dtenkate@bloomberg.net; Supunnabul Suwannakij in Bangkok at ssuwannakij@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net


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