REPORTING FROM NEW DELHI, INDIA -- Thailand, reeling from its worst flooding in decades, received more bad news Saturday as the death toll since July rose to 356 and the prime minister warned that the inundation could last an additional six weeks.
Authorities are carrying out a high-risk maneuver this weekend, attempting to channel floodwaters through Bangkok canals and out to sea from the deluged central plains. The capital has already seen waist-high water in its northern neighborhoods amid fears the heart of downtown could be next if the diversion fails.
"Bangkok must open all floodgates to allow the water through," said Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a nationwide radio address. "There is a huge volume of run-off water from the north and we can't effectively block it but can only slow the flow.”
The government raised the death toll to 356 from Friday’s 342 level with another two missing. An estimated 113,000 people have been displaced and are now living in shelters. And the nation has suffered some $3.3 billion in economic damage, a figure that could double if Bangkok is swamped.
Neighboring Myanmar has also suffered at least 100 deaths and Cambodia 247 from its own severe flooding.
Some critics said the lack of preparation and flood-control infrastructure reflect the nation’s obsession with economic performance.
Yingluck, who’s been in office only two months, invoked a disaster law on Friday to exert more control over squabbling ministries and contradictory information. She also warned Bangkok residents to move their belongings to higher floors and brace for water levels that could reach three feet.
The politician, a sister of fugitive former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, also said her government would safeguard Bangkok’s palaces, important buildings and economic zones. Critics have accused her of moving slowly and failing to recognize the scale of the problem.
“The government should’ve done much better than this, it’s mismanaged the whole thing,” said Kavi Chongkittavorn, assistant group editor with the Nation media group. “With their populist policies and rallies, they’re much better at controlling people than water.”
Stores in the capital quickly ran out of bottled water and instant noodles, with some residents seen buying ice to melt into drinking water.
“Two days ago, I went with a friend to buy water at the grocery store near Central,” said Karen Emmons, a writer who lives on low-lying Soi 39. “The shelf was cleared out except for Evian. Only the high-priced French water was left. She bought two cases.”
Flooding has affected nearly half of the country’s 77 provinces in the past three months, taking a huge toll on the country’s economy. Thailand is the world’s top rice and rubber producer and a major disk-drive manufacturer. The disaster is sending jitters through the global computer industry in advance of the Christmas shopping season.
Five major industrial estates north of Bangkok, a city known as the Venice of the East, have suspended operations. Car makers Honda and Toyota, among others, have shuttered production. And two more industrial estates to the north and east are in jeopardy, putting more than 700,000 people out of work temporarily.
More than 200 banks are closed and thousands of ATMs shuttered.
Analysts said Thailand is paying the price for its obsession with headlong economic growth in recent decades. This has denuded national forests that once absorbed rain, interrupted traditional water-management practices and resulted in the wholesale cementing over of lowlands that once held water during flooding.
“Roads sprout everywhere, built with little thought and cheap drainage that quickly clogs,” said Kraisak Choonhavan, a political analyst and lawmaker. “The new international airport, a national pride, is built on a drained marsh, one of the biggest areas that would contain the water.”
The focus on saving Bangkok, while economically sound, has underscored longstanding political tensions in the country between the urban elite and the relatively poor rural population, analysts added.
Bangkok saw months of street fighting and unrest last year between government forces and “red shirt” protesters made up mostly of farmers, the poor and the working class.
“The people of Bangkok thought it was an island, that you could block the water and send it to the west, east, into the main Prapa Canal,” said Pitch Pongsawat, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University. “In an address, the Bangkok government said they were trying to save the Bangkok people, not the rest of the country.”
In fairness, analysts said, few envisioned the scale of this disaster. The last flooding on this scale was in 1942, well before industrialization.
But Yingluck’s new populist government has made some missteps. She balked at declaring a state of emergency –- settling for a less overarching law -– because her party has traditionally been wary of the military and doesn’t want to expand its clout.
This has squandered some of its expertise in logistics, its command and control expertise and knowledge of the terrain, some said.
There’s also been infighting and finger pointing that’s left the public confused and too many ad hoc solutions without enough overall direction. “Like Hurricane Katrina, you have a central government and the local governor who think differently,” said Kavi. “They’re only now starting to coordinate. And Yingluck’s been all media spin, without implementation."
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: Thai Buddhist monks wade along the flooded Weeru Wanaram temple at Don Muang District, in Bangkok, Thailand. Credit: Aaron Favila / Associated Press.