Peak tides test Thai capital's flood defenses

BANGKOK Sun Oct 30, 2011 7:21am EDT

1 of 11. A Buddhist monk wadesthrough a flooded street while collecting alms near the Grand Palace in Bangkok on October 30, 2011. Thailand's worst floods in half a century have killed 381 people since July, wiped out a quarter of the main rice crop in the world's biggest rice exporter, forced up global prices of computer hard drives and caused delays in global auto production after destroying industrial estates.

Credit: Reuters/Adrees Latif

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Peak tides tested Bangkok's flood defenses on Sunday as hope rose that the center of the Thai capital might escape the worst floods in decades, but that was little comfort for swamped suburbs and provinces where worry about disease is growing.

The floods have killed at least 381 people since July and affected more than 2 million. Authorities have cut growth forecasts for Southeast Asia's second biggest economy. Disruptions to auto and computer-part producers have been felt worldwide.

Water flowing down the central Chao Phraya river basin from the north is meeting peak tides surging in the Gulf of Thailand, 20 km (12 miles) south of Bangkok, leading to fears the city's makeshift defenses would be swamped.

The tides have pushed water in the river, which snakes its way through the city past gilded temples and wooden shanties, about 2.5 meters (8 feet) above sea level but dikes and sandbag walls have largely held.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a political novice who took over this year after an election that many Thais hoped would heal chronic political divisions, said the city's fate rested with its network of defenses.

"It depends on the level of the sea and sometimes it's about the stability of the way we put the sandbags," Yingluck told reporters. "Hopefully, the sandbags are quite strong enough. So if the sandbags don't fall over, it should be OK."

The high tides are due to last until Monday. Sunday's tide was not quite as high as Saturday's, Yingluck said, adding that people should not lose confidence: "We will recover soon."

But the danger is far from over.

Authorities trying to divert water around the city and out to sea said a "great volume" was flowing from the north into a canal in western Taling Chan district and people were being advised to leave.

Most people living in Thonburi, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya, have been struggling in waist-deep water for several days to save possessions.

People in Thonburi's Bang Phlad neighborhood battled in vain to shore up a crumbling sandbag wall and women screamed as water from the swollen river surged into a commercial street.

Several parts of north Bangkok are also swamped while provinces just north, such as Pathun Thani and Ayutthaya, have been largely inundated for weeks. Fears about water-borne diseases and malaria are growing.

Matthew Cochrane of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said the situation was critical. Many people were living in floodwater without access to food and water.

"There are more than 2 million people who have been affected over the past few months. Many of them are still affected," Cochrane told Reuters.

As well as the growing risk of diarrhea and mosquito-borne diseases, skin infections were a major problem, he said.

In some areas, crocodiles have escaped from flooded farms and snakes searching for dry land have slithered into homes.

RICE, COMPUTERS AND CARS

The floods have submerged 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares), or roughly the size of Kuwait, and follow unusually heavy monsoon rain.

But there have been accusations that authorities delayed releasing water from dams. By the time they had to release it or risk dams bursting, rain was heavy and rivers full.

The weather has been mostly clear for the last few days.

The worst floods in half a century have also wiped out a quarter of the main rice crop in the world's biggest exporter.

The waters also inundated seven industrial estates that have sprung up over the last 20 years on what used to be the central plan's rice-growing lands.

Thailand is the second-largest exporter of computer hard drives and global prices are rising because of a flood-related shortage of major components used in personal computers.

The president of South Korea's Samsung Electronics said he expected Thailand's floods to hit the computer memory chip market further by hurting PC production until the first quarter of next year.

"There is too much uncertainty in the market," Jun Dong-soo, president of Samsung's memory business, said in comments released on Sunday. Samsung is the world's top maker of dynamic random access memory, which is used widely in PCs.

Japan's Honda Motor Co may keep its Thai factory shut for about six months which would affect 3 percent of its annual global car output, the Nikkei business daily reported.

The high tides have flooded parts of Bangkok's normally bustling Chinatown and some streets around the glittering Grand Palace which a few tourists were still visiting.

Numerous buildings have been sandbagged or walled off. Many people left their cars on elevated roads, although most of the inner city is dry.

Many residents have taken advantage of a special five-day holiday to Monday to flee the city. Those left behind have stocked up and supplies of staples in many shops have run out.

Some governments have warned citizens against non-essential travel to the city of 12 million and some flights have been canceled, although the main airport has not been flooded.

(Additional reporting by Jason Szep and Martin Petty; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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