Thailand races to defend Bangkok from floods

PATHUM THANI, Thailand Tue Oct 11, 2011 5:37am EDT

1 of 2. An aerial view of a flooded Honda car factory in Ayutthaya province October 10, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Sukree Sukplang

PATHUM THANI, Thailand (Reuters) - Thailand raced on Tuesday to build floodwalls on the outskirts of Bangkok to prevent the worst floods in half a century from inundating parts of the capital later this week when water flowing from the north reaches the low-lying city.

At least 269 people have been killed by heavy monsoon rains, floods and mudslides that have battered 27 of Thailand's 77 provinces since late July, according to the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation

Much of Thailand's north, northeast and central plains are flooded, affecting 2.3 million people. Bangkok -- only two metres (6.5 ft) above sea level -- could be next if water overflowing from reservoirs in the north arrives at the same time as high estuary tides are due from October 13.

Rescue workers hastily built a floodwall in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok, where strong currents burst a river embankment overnight, flooding homes in water at least two metres high.

"I've never seen floods as bad as this year. The first floor of my house is all flooded and it's coming up to the second floor," said Wanpen Suanmakam, 62, a resident in Pathum Thani, a province intersected by canals that feed its rice paddies.

Another resident, Sukanna Saeieaw, 60, almost up to her neck in water, said a makeshift walkway briefly helped people avoid water when the road was flooded but it was quickly washed away.

"The water came in very fast," she said.

Lerpong Kaewsrichan, Pathum Thani deputy governor, said the water had mostly submerged farmland but two industrial estates in the area had been spared for now. "We're trying our best to protect our economic zones," he said.

About 2,000 people were packed into a Pathum Thani evacuation centre, most from the neighbouring province of Ayutthaya, one of the worst affected.

Nearly 198 factories in a sprawling industrial estate there, including an assembly plant of Honda Motor Co Ltd (7267.T), have closed after floodwater breached a wall of sandbags at the weekend. Nikon Corp (7731.T) said it has halted a digital SLR camera production site due to flooding.

Toyota Motor (7203.T) said it halted operations at all three Thai factories.

Thailand is a major production centre for many of the world's biggest car manufacturers. Their assembly plants are mostly in eastern Rayong province, which has not been badly hit, but there is bound to be disruption because car part makers elsewhere have been affected.

About 3.4 million acres (1.38 million hectares) of farm land nationwide is under water -- about 13 times the size of Hong Kong -- and more than 700,000 homes were destroyed or damaged.

Many people used boats to navigate streets or waited on roofs of homes for help.

THREAT TO TOURISM

The final quarter of the year is the high season for Thailand's big tourist sector. The ancient capital of Ayutthaya is flooded and the popular northern city of Chiang Mai has also been hit, suggesting tourism may take a big hit.

Despite the disruption to road and rail travel to the north, Tourism Minister Chumphol Silpa-archa played down the impact as he headed into a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

"At least 39,000 foreign travellers are still coming to Thailand every day. They're choosing to visit other areas and travel by air," he told reporters.

To protect Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport, the main international gateway into Thailand, a three-metre (9.8 ft) high earth dike was being reinforced.

The cabinet agreed to cut current government spending by 10 percent for the fiscal year that began on October 1 and divert the funds -- around 80 billion baht-- to relief work. The government still aims to keep its budget deficit at the planned level of 350 billion baht, officials said.

Finance Minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala said on Monday the central bank had put the initial cost of the damage caused by the floods at 60 billion baht, about 0.6 percent of GDP.

His ministry has put damage at 69 billion baht and cut its economic growth forecast for this year to 3.7 percent from 4.0 percent due to the floods and the global economic slowdown.

Economists at HSBC said the floods may shave up to one percentage point off estimated 4.9 percent year-on-year economic growth in the fourth quarter, although they expected reconstruction to boost demand in the first half of next year.

The Commerce Ministry has cut its estimate of the main rice crop, harvesting of which started this month, to 21 million tonnes from 25 million because of flooding. Thailand is the world's biggest producer of the grain.

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Jutarat Skulpichetrat; Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Jason Szep)

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