BANGKOK (Reuters) - Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra pledged more than $4 billion on Wednesday to help Thailand recover from the worst floods in half a century, as workers slowed the flow of water threatening the commercial heart of the capital, Bangkok.
Evacuation orders have spread to a third of Bangkok’s districts, mostly in the north of the densely populated city of 12 million people, since late October, as floodwater strewn with trash slowly seeps in from northern and northeastern provinces.
Yingluck, a political novice elected this year, said about 120 billion baht($3.9 billion) had been set aside for a flood recovery effort, a figure that rises to 130 billion baht ($4.2 billion) when local government funds are added.
On the streets of Bangkok, few see an end to the slow-moving disaster that began after tropical storm Nock-ten battered Southeast Asia in late July. Since then, at least 529 people have been killed, many electrocuted or drowned, in floods that have affected 63 of Thailand’s 77 provinces.
Some hard-hit regions have started to recover since the end of the August-to-October monsoon season, with only 24 provinces now classified as flooded. But for low-lying Bangkok, the disaster is far from over, as the authorities struggle to keep inner-city neighborhoods and business districts dry.
“I‘m concerned about more water reaching Bangkok and I just want to know when it will recede. It’s rising and it should recede but when will that be?” said Bangkok resident, Nee Jiranantawat, 53.
Others said they feared they may run low on food and other supplies, especially in homes flooded in waist-high water.
Nikom Teo-au, a 56-year-old garage owner, said he was facing difficulty delivering food to his family at his home on a street under up to 1.5 meters (4.9 ft) of water in Bangkok’s Din Daeng neighborhood, just 7 km (4.3 miles) from the main Silom business district where buildings are ringed with sand bags.
Yingluck, a 46-year-old former businesswoman and sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, said the money would ease the suffering of victims and repair damaged infrastructure.
She spoke at a special session of parliament called to debate the flooding and her management of the crisis a day after announcing she had pulled out of a weekend summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Hawaii to concentrate on relief work.
The toll on Thailand’s economy and hundreds of global manufacturers who rely on its low-cost factories keeps rising.
The central bank has slashed its economic growth forecast for this year to 2.6 percent from 4.1 percent, citing the repercussions of floods which forced seven big industrial estates to close in central provinces in October.
The economic impact will be even worse if Bangkok, which accounts for 41 percent of gross domestic product, is overrun.
Workers and soldiers are trying to hold the line at the city’s Bang Sue canal, pushing water into the Chao Phraya river and stopping it from overflowing to the south. Reuters reporters in the area said they had mostly achieved this so far.
Even so, with each week, the water has slowly drawn closer to the business district and the Ratchaprasong intersection, whose swanky shopping malls and five-star hotels were closed for weeks by political protests in April-May last year.
The major north-south Ratchadaphisek and Viphavadi-Rangsit roads were flooded in the vicinity of the Bang Sue canal. A Reuters reporter said the area was under 60 cm (2 ft) of dark, foul-smelling water in places, with trash on the surface.
Chatuchak market, whose 11,000 stalls are a draw for tourists and residents alike, opened last weekend but was now submerged, with vendors’ carts and tables washed away and stray dogs taking refuge on the rooftops, the reporter said.
Barefoot soldiers were ushering people from the elevated Skytrain -- still working across the capital, like the MRT underground railway -- onto buses crammed with passengers.
In the east of the capital, floodwater still threatened two big industrial estates, Bang Chan with 93 factories including Nestle SA and Lat Krabang with 254 including Unilever Pcl and Honda Motor Co.
“The water level situation in Beung Kratiem on the north side of Bang Chan Industrial Estate is still a concern. Even with the water pumps there, water keeps rising,” said Thanes Weerasiri, secretary-general of the Engineering Institute of Thailand.
“The water level has risen by 3 cm (1.2 inches) from yesterday,” he told Reuters, adding that efforts to divert the water into a major canal nearby had been stepped up. Channel 3 television said water had got into one factory compound.
However, the situation inside the Lat Krabang Industrial Estate was still normal.
The estates are about 10 km (6 miles) north of Bangkok’s main Suvarnabhumi airport, which is functioning normally inside a reinforced dike at least 3 metres (10 ft) high.
The Chao Phraya river snaking through Bangkok has another phase of high tides from Thursday to Monday and riverside communities are braced for floods, especially on the relatively dry east bank, although a navy official said the river should not reach the record high levels seen at the end of October.
Thursday sees the Loy Krathong festival, when Thais like to float offerings of food, flowers and candles on rivers and lakes, a symbolic pushing away of bad feelings and bad luck.
But Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra has canceled a big event on the fast-flowing river scheduled for Thursday and urged people not to float their offerings in flooded areas. They would add to the tonnes of rubbish lying in sodden piles in the streets, he said, and the candles were a fire hazard.
($1 = 30.70 baht)
Additional reporting by Martin Petty, Aukkarapon Niyomyat, Sinthana Kosolpradit, Panarat Thepgumpanat, Orathai Sriring and Ploy Ten Kate,; Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel