Thailand’s worst floods in half a century have reached the capital Bangkok, as officials struggle to control a torrent of water that is threatening to engulf the nation’s political and economic heart.
City officials ordered the evacuation of six northern districts as the floodwaters approached.
Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s recently elected prime minister, said on a visit to the government’s flood relief operations centre on Monday that she hoped the water level in the capital would not rise above one metre.
But, with Ms Yingluck having consistently taken a more optimistic tone than the governor of Bangkok, who represents the opposition Democrat party, residents said they were preparing for the worst and have been stocking up on food and water. Some supermarkets have run out of supplies.
At least 350 people have been killed, several million forced out of their homes and big industrial estates and key infrastructure destroyed. Monsoon rains have pounded south-east Asia since July, wiping out large swaths of rice crops and raising the spectre of “serious food shortages”, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Despite initial attempts to divert the flood waters around Bangkok, which accounts for about 40 per cent of Thailand’s economic output, the government is now attempting to drain the huge volume of water south into the sea through the city’s canals and its main river, the Chao Phraya.
Moody’s, the credit rating agency, estimated on Monday that the floods would cost Thailand more than Bt200bn ($6.5bn), or 2 per cent of gross domestic product. But it predicted that while state finances would suffer, “the government will have ample fiscal space to absorb flood-related costs without prompting a permanent deterioration in its debt ratios”.
Thailand’s industrial heartland, to the north of Bangkok, has already been deluged by the surging waters, forcing the closure of more than 1,000 factories and leading to the loss of more than 600,000 jobs. Japanese carmakers, many of which have set up regional manufacturing bases in Thailand, have been badly hit as well as hard-disc drive producers, leading to a global shortage of a key component in computers.
On Monday, Mazda and Toyota, the Japanese car makers, and Toshiba, the Japanese electronics maker, become the latest in a long and growing list of major manufacturers to extend production shutdowns at facilities that have been affected by the floods.
Ms Yingluck, a political novice who became Thailand’s first woman prime minister in August, has come under increasing political pressure from critics who say her populist government has lacked co-ordination and released inaccurate information, particularly about the fate of Bangkok.
But analysts believe that the first crisis of her term in office has also given Ms Yingluck the opportunity to demonstrate her leadership.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, argued that the scale of the flooding, ineffective state agencies and poor long-term planning have hindered Ms Yingluck’s ability to respond.
“She is obviously doing her best but the question is whether her best is good enough,” he said. “The people who did not support her from the outset will seize on the deluge to destabilise her rule.”
However, analysts believe Ms Yingluck’s opponents in the Democrat party, which was previously in power, are playing a dangerous game as they must also take the blame for the long-term planning failures that have exacerbated the flooding and the damage has that followed in its wake.
“There has been a much broader political and administrative failure in terms of the management of water, the management of dams and the building of suburbs and factories on wetlands so that the drainage that Thailand has relied on in the past is not available any more,” said Michael Montesano, an expert in Thai politics at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Get alerts on Bangkok when a new story is published