Bangkok At Risk Of Its Worst Flooding In Decades

Oct 27, 2011
Originally published on November 3, 2011 5:24 pm

Thailand's capital, Bangkok, is facing the imminent threat of widespread flooding after three months of unusually heavy rain.

Panic buying has left grocery shelves empty of basics. Many are fleeing the city, and many areas are virtually empty. The government has declared a five-day holiday to encourage people to leave Bangkok for higher ground. On Thursday, the government said it was no longer a question of if, but when the floods would come.

At Bangkok's iconic Oriental Hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya river, the musicians in white tuxedos in the lobby were putting a brave face on things. It was a little like the band on the Titanic — right after it hit that nasty piece of ice.

Outside, though, a construction crew was working overtime to buttress the utilitarian yet semi-elegant flood wall hastily erected to keep the water at bay.

The river was about eight inches below the hotel's main outdoor dining area on Wednesday. On Thursday, with rising tides from the south and the torrent of water from the north, the river was clearly winning. And with the lunar high tide expected Friday, a potential disaster was lapping at the door.

Newly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of deposed and fugitive prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, acknowledged that Bangkok faced heavy flooding.

She says the government will do all it can to mitigate the damage in what looks to be the worst flooding to hit Thailand in more than five decades. Three months of torrential rains have left large parts of the countryside virtually underwater. Now the capital faces a similar danger.

Economy Threatened

That's bad news for Thai workers everywhere. Car manufacturers and computer hard-drive makers have been hard-hit by the floods in factories to the north of Bangkok. Shortages of car and computer parts worldwide are likely to last well into next year. And many local jobs are now at risk, at least in the short term.

Suwit Amkha works at a printing company just outside the city and has been slogging his way to work through thigh-deep water for three weeks now. The factory where he works was still dry, but he was forced to abandon his apartment.

He moved his most sacred belongings — mostly images of the Buddha — to his sister's place on the 12th floor of a building inside Bangkok's city limits. But he worries what will happen when he tries to go back to work.

"I don't know if the factory will be underwater when I get there," he says. "I don't know if my boss will pay me for the time I miss if he's forced to shut down. If I go there tomorrow, and the factory is closed, then I'll go back home [outside Bangkok] to see my wife and my new baby." It's a lot better, he says, than waiting around for the waters to recede.

And then there are those who make their living in the tourist business. Ratya Thongtamlung, who has owned her travel business for eight years, says her cancellations of the past week have outstripped those caused by the political crises over the past three years.

She blames the government for mishandling the situation. The new prime minister is a political novice who is not up to the job, she says. But others, including some environmentalists, say it was only a matter of time before rampant overbuilding in the flood plain, along with Bangkok's rapid development, forced the issue.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Thailand, the capital, Bangkok, is on the verge of what may be a catastrophic flood. The high water comes after three months of unusually heavy rain. Panic buying has left grocery shelves empty of the basics.

And as Michael Sullivan reports, many residents are fleeing rather than taking their chances in the city.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: At Bangkok's iconic Oriental Hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya river, the white tuxedoed musicians in the lobby were putting a brave face on things tonight, a little like the band on the Titanic right after it hit that nasty piece of ice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: Outside, though, a construction crew was working overtime to buttress the semi-elegant, but utilitarian flood wall hastily erected to keep the water at bay.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

SULLIVAN: Yesterday, the Chao Phraya was about eight inches below the hotel's main outdoor dining area. Today, with rising tides from the south and the torrent of water from the north, the river was clearly winning. And with the lunar high tide expected tomorrow, this is the sound of disaster lapping at the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)

SULLIVAN: The hotel and much of the city is virtually empty, the government declaring a five-day holiday to encourage people to leave Bangkok and move their belongings, and themselves, to higher and safer ground elsewhere. Today, the government admitted it was no longer a question of if but when.

PRIME MINISTER YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Newly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of deposed and fugitive Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, admitted that Bangkok faced widespread flooding, but she pledged the government would do all it could to mitigate the damage.

The worst flooding to hit Thailand in more than five decades. Three months of torrential rains that have left large parts of the countryside virtually underwater, a situation that may continue there and here in the capital for weeks.

That's bad news for Thai workers everywhere. Car manufacturers and computer hard-drive makers have been hard hit by the floods in their factories north of Bangkok. Shortages of car and computer parts worldwide are likely to last well into next year. And many local jobs are now at risk, at least in the short-term.

SUWIT AMKHA: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Suwit Amkha works at a printing company just outside the city, and has been slogging his way to work through thigh-deep water for three weeks now. The factory where he works was still dry today, but he was forced to abandon his apartment - the water, up to his chest. He moved his most sacred belongings, mostly images of the Buddha, to his sister's place on the high-rise inside Bangkok's city limits. But he worries what will happen when he tries to go back to work tomorrow.

AMKHA: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I don't know if the shop will be underwater when I get there, he says. I don't know if my boss will pay me for the time I miss if he's forced to shut down. If I go there tomorrow, he says, and the factory is closed, then I'll go back home up country to see my wife and my new baby. It's a lot better, he says, than waiting around here.

And then there are those who make their living in the tourist business, another big foreign currency earner. Ratya Thongtamlung, who has owned her travel business in the Sukhumvit neighborhood for eight years, says her cancellations in the past week have outstripped any caused by the political crises here in the past three years.

RATYA THONGTAMLUNG: Right now, 80 percent because have only one booking right now, that he's still confirmed. One booking.

SULLIVAN: Ratya blames the government for mishandling the situation. The new prime minister, a political novice, not up to the job, she says. But others, including some environmentalists, say it was only a matter of time before rampant overbuilding in the floodplain and rapid development forced the issue.

The bottom line is, Thailand's commercial capital, which is responsible for more than 40 percent of the country's GDP, is likely to be underwater by this time tomorrow.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: ALL THINGS CONSIDERED continues in a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.