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Hell and high water in Thailand

Asia Times - November 3, 2011

Simon Roughneen, Bangkok With floodwaters now edging closer towards the Thai capital's heavily-sandbagged city center, the economic, political and human costs of the country's worst floods in over five decades are fast rising.

While northern suburbs are now sitting under two-week-old stinking floodwaters, and historic towns such as Ayutthaya and its famous temple ruins flooded for more than month, the recent news focus has been on whether Bangkok's central areas, including the business district, will likewise be inundated. [1]

So far the city center has been spared, though areas just across from the bulging Chao Phraya River have been deluged. Nearly 400 people have died and over two million have been affected by floods that originated in the country's north and are now bearing down on the capital city in route to the Gulf of Thailand.

Areas that officials earlier said would be spared are now slipping under water. Ploy Patcharin Seema, who on Wednesday was wheeling a case of what she described as "all my things" across the Pinklao bridge linking sodden Thonburi district on the west bank of Bangkok with the mostly dry eastern side.

The area is across the river and within walking distance from some of Bangkok's landmark temples and tourist attractions, including the backpacker hub along Khao San road and historic sites like Grand Palace. It is also a mere five kilometers upriver from the city's main business and financial districts, including the Silom Road area.

Perspiring in the late afternoon heat, Ploy pointed back down the bridge toward the flood and in the general direction of her inundated home. "The water is to here," she said, right hand raised to navel level. "It is so dirty now, but we had no choice to stand in it". On her way to stay at a friend's dry house, Ploy said she needs to find accommodation for her mother. "She is still inside at home."

At the water's edge of the Pinklao bridge, which runs about 400 meters upriver from where King Bhumibol Adulyadej rests in the riverside Siriraj Hospital, residents queued to jump on trucks with wheels high enough to traverse kilometers of flooded streets on the west bank area of the city.

The desperation is palpable and widespread with reports of power outages, food shortages and the emergence of water-borne diseases. All day people ferried food and water to homes or jumped on trucks with whatever they could salvage from their inundated homes. Tens of thousands have evacuated to dry parts of the city or left Bangkok altogether.

Poum Charuprakorn, 22, a classical music student at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, managed to save his musical instruments from the floodwaters. His family home in Pra Pinklao Soi 2 is now almost neck-high in week-old floodwater, he said.

"It has been rising every day," Poum said, passing boxes of possessions to his cousin whose car waited on the dry side of the bridge to take him and his siblings to a bus station from where they planned to travel to a temporary refuge at Kanchanaburi province in the west of the country.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government has said that the flood in the western riverside area of Bangkok should recede within 15-20 days, but Poum believes it will last much longer. "I doubt it will be dry for another month," he said.

Amid a confusing and complex emergency, Yingluck's government and Bangkok's opposition-led City Hall have been at odds over flood management, mitigation and messaging since the waters began to threaten the capital. The political stakes are high considering Bangkok accounts for around 40% of national gross domestic product.

Both sides have alternated between pessimistic and optimistic messages, often interspersed with announcements from one side that took issue or contradicted the other. Yingluck at one point said Bangkok would be spared, while Bangkok Governor Sukhumband Paribatra hotly contested that assessment. Flood mitigation has forced difficult political choices, and it appears that in part Bangkok's downtown remains dry because outer poorer areas are all wet.

At Sam Wa canal on the city's northern outskirts, locals protested and eventually forced open with sledge hammers on Monday a section of a sluice gate that had held flood waters in their neighborhood. Yingluck's government agreed to allow for a one meter opening of the gate after residents carped that their area was being sacrificed to prevent floods from moving south toward the city center.

In what some local media interpreted as Yingluck buckling to grass roots resistance, on Wednesday the Bangkok city administration enforced a repair of the breached gate which it claimed if left open would flood industrial estates and central Bangkok commercial areas.

Yingluck was elected in July on a pro-poor policy platform, but critics say many of her flood management choices have favored the rich over the poor. Those charges parallel criticism that Sukhumbhand's City Hall has prioritized saving central areas over relieving the flooded outskirts.

Visiting the area on Tuesday, Asia Times Online encountered a mixture of views on both sides of the canal. People in flooded areas were incensed that they had been "sacrificed" by the government to save Bangkok. Residents south of the gate, meanwhile, were angry at the dangers posed by the temporary forced opening of the sluice gate.

Standing on the bridge overlooking the canal, one resident an elderly man who refused to give his name from the area immediately south of the gate said that while he did not want his house to be flooded, he understood that it "is not fair to those living over there if they have to hold the waters around their homes."

For those awaiting or caught up in the floods, mixed messages coming from government and City Hall have prompted anger and confusion. Neeranuch Techasoontorn, who was wading through knee-high, fast-running waters outside her home just off Sukhumvit Road's Soi 50, near the city center's eastern side, is among them.

Water was gushing into her street after three separate cracks opened in the sidewalls of a nearby canal that lead to an important sluice gate at the edge of Sukhumvit Road where many expatriates and wealthy Thais reside.

The breach was repaired earlier this week but the cracks highlight the possibility that Bangkok's estimated 2,000 canals and subterranean waterways will be overwhelmed to pass billions of cubic meters of slow-moving and part-barricaded floodwater to the north as it is channeled through the city to the Gulf of Thailand.

Damage has also been done to the government's credibility. "I use social networking to keep up with what is going on," said Neeranuch, a graphic designer, amid reports that the number of Twitter users has increased by 20% since the onset of the flood crisis. "I don't think any of the authorities have done a good job telling us what is happening."

To others, however, the instant messaging and real-time updates disseminated through social networking tools have likewise failed to provide clarity.

"People are spreading rumor all the time, by phone and social network," said Chutimas Suksai, an anthropology student and volunteer relief worker. "I was checking my iPhone at Ari [a station on Bangkok's elevated Skytrain system] yesterday and people were tweeting that it was flooded, that sewers had burst. But I was standing there [and] it was dry."

[Simon Roughneen is a foreign correspondent. His website is www.simonroughneen.com.]

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