Business, Finance & Economics

Bangkok’s big soak, floodwaters submerge city


Global Weather - Asia hit by repeat storms: Heavy rain falls over the city of Bangkok at sunset during the monsoon season. Sept. 18, 2011.


Nicolas Asfouri

BANGKOK, Thailand — One month. That’s how long floods pouring into Bangkok could fill the city and hold residents hostage while waters drain slowly into the sea.

Since August, heavy monsoon rains have pounded Thailand’s northern hills and sent floods cascading southwards. All that water has deluged provinces around Bangkok, leaving an area the size of Connecticut underwater.

Now, gravity compels the floodwaters to gush through low-lying Bangkok, a 10-million population metropolis and Thailand’s center of economic and political power. Water has encircled the city’s core, which is now protected only by cement dams, dikes and hastily piled-up sandbag walls.

Related: Bangkok shops impose emergency rationing amid flood fears

But if these defenses fail — and they may, the government warns — even the densely populated city center could soak in waist-high waters.

This scenario has spun Bangkok into a panic. Shops and homes are ringed with sandbags. The well-off have fled to the beach. Those who can’t have continued stockpiling instant noodles and clearing out 7-11 shelves. In low-lying districts where the flooding has begun, office workers have swapped Oxfords and high heels for flip-flops.

“We’re scared that people in Bangkok will starve to death, not drown to death,” said Bhichit Rattakul, a former Bangkok governor and director of the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center. “People who don’t have anything to eat or water to drink — because of panic [buying], not limited supply — will be in a difficult situation.”

The creeping floods will likely fill evacuation centers and slow commerce to a trickle, but are more likely to bring more drownings and electrocutions than starvation. For days, Thailand’s government has urged residents to stock up. Authorities have called a five-day holiday to let people flee to drier provinces.

The severity of Bangkok’s floods will vary wildly by district. Even Bhichit concedes that flooding in some of the city’s busiest districts — such as its main drag, Sukhumvit Road — could amount to a mere annoyance. “Maximum,” he said, “it could be at footpath level.” The government warns that other neighborhoods will steep in 5 feet of water.

But perhaps the real pain is yet to come.

Related: In soaked Bangkok, even the flood shelter is flooded

Long after waters drain into the sea, Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, will continue to suffer. So far, according to Reuters, more than 800,000 homes have been destroyed and roughly 650,000 people are temporarily out of work.

“The last time I saw my house, the water inside was to my waist. Outside, it was chest high,” said Anuwat Sumploy, a 33-year-old rice vendor from Rangsit, a city just outside Bangkok.

“I feel total loss. I can’t even explain it,” said Anuwat, who fled to an evacuation center with his wife, elderly mother and 2-year-old son. “I’m supposed to take care of my family, you know?” he said. “We lost so much and I’m losing more just sitting here. My house is soaked and, where you have water, you get mosquitoes and filth. But I just want to go back.”

Anuwat and millions of other evacuees will not be returning anytime soon. According to the government, Bangkok’s floods could last between two and four weeks. Once they recede, many people in and around the city will return to uninhabitable homes, trucks that won’t start and ruined factories.

The economic toll promises to be alarming. Thailand’s economy was projected to grow by as much as 5 percent earlier this year. Now, Moody’s Investor Service predicts the floods will end up costing $65 billion in losses and cause Thailand’s annual GDP to grow by only 2.8 percent.

The flooding of more than 10,000 factories has triggered snafus in far-flung places. Japanese car makers, which rely on Thai assembly plants, have seen output shrink by 6,000 vehicles per day. Even Toyota factories in Kentucky and West Virginia that rely on Thai-made parts have cut workers’ hours. And because Thailand produces one-fourth of the world’s disk drives, Apple’s MacBook factories may lack for components, according to CEO Tim Cook.

Worse yet is the potential for crisis-level flooding revisiting Bangkok again and again in the future.

Along with Bangkok’s explosive growth in recent decades, concrete homes and shops have sprawled atop the region’s soft, swampy soil. Jungly areas ringing the capital once slowed floods rushing down from the hills with foliage and roots.

But this greenery has been replaced with apartment blocks and factories. With natural defenses diminished, the crowded capital is now only protected by government reservoirs, dams and pumping stations that are prone to human error.

Detractors of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s newly elected premier, are depicting the flood crisis as her Hurricane Katrina: a natural disaster widely seen as bungled by the national government.

Related: Flooding the suburbs to save Bangkok

Announcements from the government have ranged from soothing to panicky. Nearly 90 percent of those polled by Thailand’s Assumption College reported feeling “confused” by updates from the premier’s special flood relief command. Yingluck has so far refused to relocate the command from Bangkok’s evacuated domestic airport even as the compound sits in more than three feet of water.

Bangkok’s governor, a stalwart of a rival party, has gone so far as to say that “people in Bangkok should listen to me only” in lieu of the prime minister.

But most experts contend that a succession of leaders has failed to upgrade Bangkok’s drainage system. Guessing when to open up reservoirs and when to retain water can also prove tricky, said Chaiyuth Sukhsri, head of the Department of Water Resources at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“People complain that part of the problem is the big reservoirs held water for too long,” he said. “But at the beginning of the wet season, dam operators wanted to save as much water as possible. They were afraid of the upcoming drought season.”

“A lot needs to be done” to improve drainage infrastructure, Bhichit said. “Otherwise, we’ll be in bad trouble with foreign investment.” The former governor predicts that, in coming months, politicians will propose mega-projects to stave off future floods. “Everyone will try to jump into this vacuum,” he said.

For now, those who’ve fled the waters must wait it out in cramped shelters, wiling away hours in front of TVs blaring news alerts and soap operas.

“This is the worst flood I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” said Waree Rangsiawong, an 81-year-old grandmother seeking refuge in a government shelter. Her home, in badly flooded Pathum Thani province, is now completely underwater, she said.

“I am not angry, not at the government or anyone else,” she said. “Loss is normal. Everyone must accept it.”