Bloomberg News

‘Mob Rule’ Threatens Bangkok With Flooding, Governor Warns

November 01, 2011

(Adds Barclays report in sixth paragraph.)

Nov. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra warned against succumbing to “mob rule” in managing floodwaters on the city’s outskirts, saying the entire country will suffer if waters inundate central business areas.

“It’s no good if we decide to do something either by ourselves or in tandem with the government, and then allow people to change our policy on the ground,” Sukhumbhand said in an interview yesterday. “We cannot give in to mob rule.”

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra yesterday ordered city officials to allow more water to flow through the Sam Wa canal, appeasing thousands of residents who have held protests in the flooded northeastern part of the capital. Most of Bangkok will be spared from severe flooding as water moves through the city’s canals toward the Gulf of Thailand, 30 kilometers (19 miles) to the south of the city, she said.

Maintaining the strength of dikes, canals and sandbag barriers on the city’s outskirts is key to protecting inner Bangkok from floodwaters that spread over 63 of Thailand’s 77 provinces over the past three months.

The central bank last week slashed its economic growth forecast for 2011 to 2.6 percent from 4.1 percent after floods swamped almost 10,000 factories and threatened to seep into the capital. Thailand’s inflation rate held above 4 percent for the seventh straight month in October as food costs climbed, government data released today show.

Flood-related losses are likely to be “much higher” than the government’s initial estimate of 100 billion baht ($3.2 billion), Rahul Bajoria, a Singapore-based regional economist at Barclays Plc, said in a note today. They may reach 200 billion baht to 300 billion baht, equivalent to 2 percent to 3 percent of gross domestic product, he said.

Unilever, Cadbury

Sam Wa canal is north of Bang Chun and Lat Krabang industrial estates, home to factories operated by Honda Motor Co., Unilever and Cadbury Plc, and connects to the Saen Saeb canal that runs near downtown business areas. Honda, Japan’s third-largest car maker, abandoned its full-year profit forecasts yesterday, saying the company can’t yet assess the financial toll of the floods that have already shut one factory.

“We need to educate people that where flooding is concerned it’s not a zero-sum game,” said Sukhumbhand, a member of the opposition Democrat party. “If Bangkok is crippled, the economy will be crippled. If the economy is crippled, who will suffer most? Certainly not big businesses, but the ordinary people, the workers, the people who send their money home to the provinces.”

Water Negotiations

The Democrat party won 23 of 33 seats in Bangkok during July elections, while Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party won nine of 10 seats in Pathum Thani and Ayutthaya provinces directly north of the capital, where flooding has reached as high as 3 meters (9.8 feet). Parties linked to Yingluck’s brother, former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, have won the past five elections on support from the northeast, the most populous region where incomes are a third of those in Bangkok.

“We negotiated with the residents and agreed to open the gate by 1 meter,” Yingluck said. “We will try to slow down the amount of water and control the water through other gates.”

The decision about which sluice gates to open is made by a committee comprised of members of the government’s flood-control center, city officials, the Irrigation Department and academics, Wim Roongwatanachinda, a spokesman for the Flood Relief Operations Command, said yesterday by phone.

Northern Dams

“We opened the flood gate earlier by 80 centimeters and it’s not flooding, so we think we can handle 20 centimeters more,” he said. “What we do, we can explain. There is always an impact on both sides when we open the gate.”

Yingluck ordered Sukhumbhand to open sluice gates in Sam Wa canal yesterday, Jate Sopitpongstorn, a spokesman for the governor, said by phone today.

Rainfall about 42 percent more than average this year filled dams north of Bangkok to capacity, prompting authorities to release more than 9 billion cubic meters of water down a river basin the size of Florida, with Bangkok at the bottom.

Sukhumbhand, who heads the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, rejected criticism that flooding north of the city was made worse because city officials waited too long to open Bangkok’s canal system. Bangkok and its vicinity account for about half of Thailand’s industrial output, according to government statistics.

“This is a myth made up for political reasons,” he said. “We have opened the gates as wide as possible for a very long time and many people in the government found to their surprise that the sluice gates which remained closed were not those of the BMA, but of the Irrigation Department.”

Shortages Ease

Flooding in the capital is mainly limited to northern and eastern areas and low-lying places near canals, while the business districts of Silom and lower Sukhumvit remain dry and the Suvarnabhumi Airport and public transport links are unaffected. Shortages of bottled water, eggs and instant noodles have eased after retailers imported products, Permanent Secretary for Commerce Yanyong Phuangrach said today.

Authorities are still concerned about northern and western districts including Don Mueang, Laksi and Thonburi, where levees are blocking water from flowing into the inner city.

Yesterday at Don Mueang, Bangkok’s old international airport and the former headquarters of the government’s flood- relief effort, Thai Airways International Pcl jets were parked next to a meter of water spreading across the runway. Several planes sat on the tarmac with water up to their wings.

On the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River, opposite the tourist site of the Grand Palace, residents waded through waist- deep water past submerged cars and food stalls. Small boats ferried residents from a bridge to their swamped homes, past people in kayaks that slowly drifted through the brown water choked with plastic bags.

“Many people are suffering very badly and unless and until we have the means to help them fully, unless we have the opportunity to restore them to their normal lives, we cannot say everything is back to normal,” Sukhumbhand said. “Obviously the psychological damage can never be assessed properly.”

--Editors: Tony Jordan, Patrick Harrington

To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok at dtenkate@bloomberg.net; Suttinee Yuvejwattana in Bangkok at suttinee1@bloomberg.net

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


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