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THAILAND: Bangkok Braces for Month of Floods

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Oct 25 2011 (IPS) - As the Thai Airways flight descends into Suvarnabhumi International Airport, passengers pull out cameras to snap pictures of flood waters rising inexorably and predicted to inundate the capital city by the end of the week.

Headlines in Thai newspapers have been warning of the catastrophe about to hit this megapolis of glass-wrapped skyscrapers. “All of Bangkok will be flooded for a month,” read the headline in one daily on Monday, quoting Plodprasop Suraswadi, Thailand’s outspoken minister of science.

By Oct. 28, this low-lying city of over eight million people will be experiencing its worst flood in decades, inundated by waters descending from the north and high tide in the Gulf of Thailand to the south, say government officials and flood management experts.

Several dikes along the city’s waterways have already been breached by the floods, lending credence to the science minister’s worst fears.

The slow-moving sheet of water flowing southwards across a flood plain is estimated to be 12 billion cu m, according to a report by flood management experts working on simulations to chart the dunking.

Against such volumes, Bangkok’s waterways have the capacity to absorb only 500 million cu m of water daily, according to the Bangkok metropolitan authority.

Bangkok’s bursting network of canals and the Chao Phraya, a major river that flows through the capital, are not equipped to handle this moving lake, estimated to equal the water impounded in the reservoir of the Bhumibol Dam, Thailand’s largest hydropower scheme.

This unfolding disaster began with a major flooding caused by monsoon rains breaking in the north and central parts of the country three months ago. It has already left in its wake a trail of death and destruction, claiming 356 lives and displacing over 2.4 million in 28 provinces, according to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Even before Bangkok – which accounts for 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product – is hit, the waters have affected tourism and manufacturing, important pillars of the kingdom’s economy.

The manufacturing parks, home to Japanese makers of cars and computers, are among areas where an estimated 14,000 companies have been forced to shut down, throwing over 600,000 workers out of work.

With the domestic Don Muang airport temporarily closed and doubling up as a shelter for displaced people the tourism industry’s target of 19 million visitors for this year, is sure to be affected.

Lamut Maniwan, a victims, had only time to grab a change of clothing before fleeing her home in a community of 1,300 houses north of the capital. “This is the worst flood I have seen,” the 62-year-old said, recalling her ride in a packed military troop carrier to escape water “bursting in from the canal near our home at two in the morning, last Thursday.”

“The ground floor of our house is under water, but in some houses it is even higher,” added this grandmother as she reached for bottles of drinking water being distributed to hundreds hunkered down at Don Muang airport. “We may have to stay here for a month if the floods get worse.”

Excessive rainfall during this year’s monsoon, three tropical storms and a typhoon appear to have conspired to condemn women like Lamut to an uncertain world of internally displaced people.

Man-made factors are also to blame, according to environmentalists who point accusing fingers at “bad water management” by the country’s irrigation department and EGAT, the state-run electricity generating authority.

EGAT delayed releasing water from its two large dams – Bhumibol and Sirikit – located north of the Bangkok flood plains when the monsoon began, argues Montree Chantawong, campaign coordinator for Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), a Bangkok-based regional green lobby.

“They should have started releasing the water in June since by then the Sirikit dam had filled up after the tropical storm Haina,” Montree told IPS.

Water in the reservoir of the larger Bhumibol had also been impounded till well after the next storm, Nockten, had swept through Thailand in July.

“By September they had no choice but to release the water because both dams had reservoirs with more water than they could hold,” Montree said. “The floods heading towards Bangkok are a combination of the excessive rain and large volumes of water being suddenly released from the dams.”

The average discharge from Bhumibol dam is close to five million cu m of water a day. But currently, EGAT, which owns the dam, has no choice but to release 50 million cu m of water per day.

While the monsoon rains have eased, the area where this 154 m-high dam is located, 480 km north of Bangkok, is a catchment that keeps filling up its reservoir with water flowing in from the surrounding tree-covered, hilly terrain.

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