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Bangkok Residents Brace for More Floods

October 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Floodwaters broke through protective barriers around Bangkok's Don Muang Airport on Tuesday, forcing its closure. Margaret Warner discusses the city's worst flooding in decades with GlobalPost's Patrick Winn.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the flooding that won’t stop in the Southeast Asian nation of Thailand.

Margaret Warner has our update.

MARGARET WARNER: Don Muang Airport was more river port today as floodwaters broke through protective barriers around the Thai capital’s main domestic air hub.

MAN: Well, all the flights for today are canceled because apparently the water is coming here.

MARGARET WARNER: Bangkok’s other airport, serving mainly international flights, remained open.

But Don Muang also faced a flood of people. It has become a refuge for thousands displaced, some under government edict, by the flooding. Today, officials ordered some to be moved to ease crowding. One displaced woman was near wit’s end.

MALEE NIKHOMTHAT, Thailand (through translator): Because the authorities have ordered us to leave, we have to leave, as they cannot let us stay here. I don’t have any money, so I have to leave this center. But this is really upsetting. So many people have come to this evacuation center and there is not enough food for everybody.

MARGARET WARNER: More than 350 people have died in Thailand over three months of monsoon- and typhoon-borne rain that have swamped much of Southeast Asia.

One-third of Thailand’s provinces have been inundated, affecting millions of people. Bangkok, a city of nine million, remains largely dry. But the Chao Phraya River, which flows through the city, has flooded seven northern districts.

And anxiety is rising with the floodwaters. The airport closure was the latest blow to the Thai government’s efforts to save the city from being swamped. The agency it created to manage the crisis, housed at Don Muang Airport, is now in danger itself of being submerged.

On Monday, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra sought to calm nervous Thais and investors who’ve seen large swathes of Thailand’s industrial zones flooded.

YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA, prime minister of Thailand (through translator): I want the foreign investors who are currently investing in Thailand and those who plan to invest here to continue having confidence in Thailand, because we have a plan for the investments, a plan to solve the flooding problem, and we have mega-projects so that the industrial business can quickly recover.

MARGARET WARNER: Waters north of Bangkok have now stabilized or begun receding. But with massive runoff still moving downstream, for the capital, the worst is yet to come.

For more on the situation, I spoke with Patrick Winn of GlobalPost in Bangkok earlier this evening.

Patrick Winn, thank you for joining us.

You were out at the airport today. What was it like? Was there water on the airport grounds?

PATRICK WINN, GlobalPost: Absolutely, yes. When I arrived, I could see floods sort of creeping in from the distance.

By the time I left, they had totally encroached on the airport. So there’s talk of evacuating that airport. It’s a bit of an embarrassment for the government, because that’s their flood relief center and that’s been one of their largest evacuation centers. So the fact that they have sent a lot of people to a relief shelter that now has to be evacuated is a bit of an upset.

MARGARET WARNER: And what was the scene at the evacuation center inside the airport?

PATRICK WINN: Well, it was fairly orderly.

But there’s about, I would say, 2,000, 3,000 people there, and it’s just been turned into a tent city. Everything is OK there. People have food. There’s a big long queue for the showers. But I think the real worry is how long people are going to have to stay there. There are predictions that the floods could just sort of be soaking Bangkok and its environs for another four to six weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: As you move around Bangkok, how different is the picture in different parts of the city?

PATRICK WINN: Well, Bangkok has turned into sandbag city. Even the heart of the city, which may or may not flood, there’s sandbags around all the financial centers, around all the shops.

Part of that may show some distrust in the government. They have said that these parts of the city may or may not flood. People are not risking it. They’re walling off their homes with sandbags, even though it’s not clear the floods will be that bad in the core of the city.

MARGARET WARNER: And what are Thai officials predicting now about whether the center of the city will be flooded?

PATRICK WINN: Just how deep the floods will be in the city center and how long they will last is unclear.

But officials have promised to empty out the water if it does come into city center as quickly as possible. It’s going to cost a lot of money and displace a lot of people the closer it comes to the core of the city.

MARGARET WARNER: How is the public reacting to all this?

PATRICK WINN: There was a collegiate poll with a fairly small sample size, only about 450, 500 people, that suggested about 85 percent of people polled felt that the government was sending mixed messages, that it wasn’t clear when and where the floods were going to hit, according to the government’s predictions.

There has been a big run on instant noodles. That seems to be the emergency food of choice here in Bangkok. All you need is hot water to eat them — 7-Eleven shelves, depending on where you are in the city, are pretty empty. Everyone is definitely doing a lot of panicked buying.

And the government has even told people stock up on bottled water as the floods come into the core of the city.

MARGARET WARNER: This flooding started up north back in August. What’s been the economic impact so far?

PATRICK WINN: Eight hundred thousand homes have been destroyed. Millions have been displaced. The World Bank is predicting that GDP — Thailand’s annual GDP for this year could slip by 2 percent.

So you have got a lot of people that can’t go to work. You have got a lot of kids that can’t go to school. All these people have to be fed, sheltered, they need electricity. Babies need diapers. Women are arriving to evacuation centers pregnant.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about exports?

PATRICK WINN: Thailand is an export economy. They produce, namely, pickup trucks, electronic parts. A lot of these are part of a supply chain that goes on to China.

So there’s going to be a — it’s predicted that there could be a shortage of certain parts that go into computers. But, overall, exports are going to take a big hit. Thailand is the biggest rice exporter in the world, and there are untold numbers of crops that are just soaking and rotting right now.

MARGARET WARNER: So what’s the government’s plan now for dealing with this? Have they had to regroup since the airport’s been flooded?

PATRICK WINN: Right.

The plan now, I think, is to hope that the embankments hold and to keep the pumping stations running as quickly as possible, and to hopefully give people accurate and precise information, so they can plan and evacuate if need be.

But, to an extent, there’s only so much the government can do. This is a horrible natural disaster. And the water is going to come into Bangkok. We’re just not sure just how bad it’s going to be.

MARGARET WARNER: Patrick Winn of GlobalPost in Bangkok, thanks so much.

PATRICK WINN: Thank you, Margaret.