Hell and high water in Thailand
By Simon Roughneen
BANGKOK - With floodwaters now edging closer towards the Thai capital's
heavily-sandbagged city center, the economic, political and human costs of the
country's worst floods in over five decades are fast rising.
While northern suburbs are now sitting under two-week-old stinking floodwaters,
and historic towns such as Ayutthaya and its famous temple ruins flooded for
more than month, the recent news focus has been on whether Bangkok's central
areas, including the business district, will likewise be inundated. 
So far the city center has been spared, though areas just across from the
bulging Chao Phraya River have been deluged. Nearly
400 people have died and over two million have been affected by floods that
originated in the country's north and are now bearing down on the capital city
in route to the Gulf of Thailand.
Areas that officials earlier said would be spared are now slipping under water.
Ploy Patcharin Seema, who on Wednesday was wheeling a case of what she
described as "all my things" across the Pinklao bridge linking sodden Thonburi
district on the west bank of Bangkok with the mostly dry eastern side.
All images by Simon Roughneen
The area is across the river and within walking distance from some of Bangkok's
landmark temples and tourist attractions, including the backpacker hub along
Khao San road and historic sites like Grand Palace. It is also a mere five
kilometers upriver from the city's main business and financial districts,
including the Silom Road area.
Perspiring in the late afternoon heat, Ploy pointed back down the bridge toward
the flood and in the general direction of her inundated home. "The water is to
here," she said, right hand raised to navel level. "It is so dirty now, but we
had no choice to stand in it". On her way to stay at a friend's dry house, Ploy
said she needs to find accommodation for her mother. "She is still inside at
At the water's edge of the Pinklao bridge, which runs about 400 meters upriver
from where King Bhumibol Adulyadej rests in the riverside Siriraj Hospital,
residents queued to jump on trucks with wheels high enough to traverse
kilometers of flooded streets on the west bank area of the city.
The desperation is palpable and widespread with reports of power outages, food
shortages and the emergence of water-borne diseases. All day people ferried
food and water to homes or jumped on trucks with whatever they could salvage
from their inundated homes. Tens of thousands have evacuated to dry parts of
the city or left Bangkok altogether.
Poum Charuprakorn, 22, a classical music student at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn
University, managed to save his musical instruments from the floodwaters. His
family home in Pra Pinklao Soi 2 is now almost neck-high in week-old
floodwater, he said.
"It has been rising every day," Poum said, passing boxes of possessions to his
cousin whose car waited on the dry side of the bridge to take him and his
siblings to a bus station from where they planned to travel to a temporary
refuge at Kanchanaburi province in the west of the country.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government has said that the flood in the
western riverside area of Bangkok should recede within 15-20 days, but Poum
believes it will last much longer. "I doubt it will be dry for another month,"
Amid a confusing and complex emergency, Yingluck's government and Bangkok's
opposition-led City Hall have been at odds over flood management, mitigation
and messaging since the waters began to threaten the capital. The political
stakes are high considering Bangkok accounts for around 40% of national gross
Both sides have alternated between pessimistic and optimistic messages, often
interspersed with announcements from one side that took issue or contradicted
the other. Yingluck at one point said Bangkok would be spared, while Bangkok
Governor Sukhumband Paribatra hotly contested that assessment. Flood mitigation
has forced difficult political choices, and it appears that in part Bangkok's
downtown remains dry because outer poorer areas are all wet.
At Sam Wa canal on the city's northern outskirts, locals protested and
eventually forced open with sledge hammers on Monday a section of a sluice gate
that had held flood waters in their neighborhood. Yingluck's government agreed
to allow for a one meter opening of the gate after residents carped that their
area was being sacrificed to prevent floods from moving south toward the city
In what some local media interpreted as Yingluck buckling to grass roots
resistance, on Wednesday the Bangkok city administration enforced a repair of
the breached gate which it claimed if left open would flood industrial estates
and central Bangkok commercial areas.
Yingluck was elected in July on a pro-poor policy platform, but critics say
many of her flood management choices have favored the rich over the poor. Those
charges parallel criticism that Sukhumbhand's City Hall has prioritized saving
central areas over relieving the flooded outskirts.
Visiting the area on Tuesday, Asia Times Online encountered a mixture of views
on both sides of the canal. People in flooded areas were incensed that they had
been "sacrificed" by the government to save Bangkok. Residents south of the
gate, meanwhile, were angry at the dangers posed by the temporary forced
opening of the sluice gate.
Standing on the bridge overlooking the canal, one resident - an elderly man who
refused to give his name - from the area immediately south of the gate said
that while he did not want his house to be flooded, he understood that it "is
not fair to those living over there if they have to hold the waters around
For those awaiting or caught up in the floods, mixed messages coming from
government and City Hall have prompted anger and confusion. Neeranuch
Techasoontorn, who was wading through knee-high, fast-running waters outside
her home just off Sukhumvit Road's Soi 50, near the city center's eastern side,
is among them.
Water was gushing into her street after three separate cracks opened in the
sidewalls of a nearby canal that lead to an important sluice gate at the edge
of Sukhumvit Road where many expatriates and wealthy Thais reside.
The breach was repaired earlier this week but the cracks highlight the
possibility that Bangkok's estimated 2,000 canals and subterranean waterways
will be overwhelmed to pass billions of cubic meters of slow-moving and
part-barricaded floodwater to the north as it is channeled through the city to
the Gulf of Thailand.
Damage has also been done to the government's credibility. "I use social
networking to keep up with what is going on," said Neeranuch, a graphic
designer, amid reports that the number of Twitter users has increased by 20%
since the onset of the flood crisis. "I don't think any of the authorities have
done a good job telling us what is happening."
To others, however, the instant messaging and real-time updates disseminated
through social networking tools have likewise failed to provide clarity.
"People are spreading rumor all the time, by phone and social network," said
Chutimas Suksai, an anthropology student and volunteer relief worker. "I was
checking my iPhone at Ari [a station on Bangkok's elevated Skytrain system]
yesterday and people were tweeting that it was flooded, that sewers had burst.
But I was standing there [and] it was dry."
1. Click herefor a Google map
(Thai language) with regular updates of flooded and non-flooded areas of
Bangkok, including local photographs.
Simon Roughneen is a foreign correspondent. His website is
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