BANGKOK (Reuters) – Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said on Thursday Thailand was in crisis and the government was struggling to cope as the worst floods in half a century threatened to engulf the capital, Bangkok.
Yingluck, under fire for her management of the flooding that has killed at least 320 people since July and devastated industrialised areas in the centre of the country, called for national unity in the face of the crisis.
“I have to admit the government can’t keep a close eye on every spot. Now is a time of national crisis. Everybody should work together,” she said at a crisis centre set up at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport.
“Blaming each other won’t help. Today we need unity to solve the problem,” she added.
Yingluck said authorities in Bangkok would coordinate to open, either entirely or partially, every sluice gate in the city to allow water estimated at 8-10 million cubic metres per day to flow around the inner city to the sea.
An additional 50,000 armed forces personnel and 30,000 police would be placed on standby to assist in flood relief.
Shelters for as many as 45,000 people were being prepared as a precaution. Residents of several northern districts had already packed up their belongings and left or waded waist-deep in water through normally bustling shopping streets.
Water now covers a third of Thailand’s provinces, some 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) in the north, northeast and centre of the country.
Huge industrial estates to the north of Bangkok have been swamped and the central bank put the damage to industry at more than 100 billion baht ($3.3 billion) on Thursday.
It has been raising interest rates for more than a year to fight inflation but it left them unchanged at a meeting on Wednesday and said on Thursday it was ready to call a special meeting to cut them if necessary.
Japan’s Sony Corp said it would delay the launch of several new cameras due in November after floods forced a halt in production at some of its Thai plants.
The output of Japanese car makers has fallen by about 6,000 units a day because of the flooding.
Rice traders and industry analysts said as much as 3.5 million tonnes of paddy, equivalent to 2 million tonnes of milled rice, may have been damaged and loading of 100,000 tonnes may have been delayed.
Thailand is the world’s biggest rice exporter.
BANGKOK IN DANGER?
Water from the north is flowing towards Bangkok and the authorities have been trying desperately to divert it around the inner city using a defensive system of dikes and canals.
The immediate danger seemed to have passed at the weekend, when high estuary tides and heavy rain added to the problem, but residents are braced for trouble again.
In one northern district, floodwater flowed into the canals as villagers tried to repair an embankment with sandbags. Some people rowed through streets on makeshift rafts.
“I’m really scared, I couldn’t sleep last night. I heard the water would come. I didn’t know what to do,” said Sakor Byuanpanat, 54, in the Sai Mai district, whose home was knee-deep in water.
Pracha Promnok, justice minister and head of the government crisis centre, said water had been released into canals and levels were stable, meaning central Bangkok would be spared the brunt of the floods.
“I assure you Bangkok is 90 percent safe from flooding. But we need to monitor the remaining 10 percent,” he told reporters on Thursday.
Just hours earlier, Pracha had said there was a threat of Bangkok being “swamped” if machines broke down or the situation was mismanaged.
Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra also appeared to have reversed his stance from a day earlier. In contrast to Yingluck’s statements, he said Bangkok was not in crisis because only seven districts were in danger.
The mixed messages have eroded public confidence in the government’s ability to deal with the crisis and fuelled talk of a rift between the ruling Puea Thai Party and the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority, controlled by the opposition Democrats.
A survey of 415 residents in Bangkok and nearby provinces by pollsters at Assumption University this week showed 87 percent thought the government’s information was unreliable.
The crisis is expected to spark a debate in coming weeks about whether some of the big-spending, populist policies that helped bring Yingluck to power should be scrapped or delayed in favour of projects to repair the damage caused by the flooding.
Bank of Thailand Governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul said economic growth this year could be more than one percentage point less than the 4.1 percent the central bank has forecast. Finance Minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala said on Tuesday growth may be just a bit more than 2 percent.
The damage to the economy will be far higher if flooding hits Bangkok, which accounts for 41 percent of GDP.
Concern about contaminated tap water prompted Bangkok residents to rush to buy bottled water and one big, central supermarket run by Big C Supercenter Pcl sold out.
Some 162 shelters have been prepared in case of evacuation and people in seven districts in the northeast of Bangkok were told to prepare for flooding.