Thai PM opens the floodgates in desperate bid to save Bangkok

  • @AndrewBuncombe

Thailand's new prime minister last night opted for a high-risk gamble to try and save Bangkok from devastating flooding by allowing some of the surging waters to enter the city.

By deciding to proceed with a controlled release of water through the city's network of canals, Yingluck Shinawatra and her senior officials are hoping to ensure any flooding to the capital city reaches no more than ankle deep. But they admit what they are doing is a gamble that could go wrong.

"Originally, we believed four areas of Bangkok might be flooded. Now it will be more than that," said Sean Boonpracong, a spokesman for the flood relief effort. "But if we do this now, we hope the water will only be ankle deep. It's like having a bottle of water and pouring it out over a wide area instead of all in one place."

The authorities in Thailand have for weeks been battling to keep at bay flood waters that people say have not been seen for generations. Some believed the worst danger had passed, and that a combination of dykes, tunnels and other defences were holding back all but minor flooding. But in the last few days, it has become clear that the amount of water bearing down on the city was greater than previously thought.

"We must allow the water to flow through. Very little has been driven to the sea," said Ms Yingluck, who was elected earlier year. "There's no way to drain out water because we are blocking it. Sometimes blocking the water caused the barriers to deteriorate, because we didn't design them to act as dams. Today we have exhausted every resource we have to slow down the water, be they damming or water retention areas."

The flooding has become a sharp test for the government, led by the younger sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Elected to office despite having no hands-on political or management experience, her government has received widespread criticism for failing to act faster and more decisively. Her Puea Thai-led coalition government has also been accused of delivering mixed messages to residents of Bangkok as to what action they should take. Part of that problem is probably partly due to the fact that the city government – which yesterday approved the proposal of the central government – is led by the main opposition party.

"We have been doing everything we can, but this is a big national crisis," Ms Yingluck told reporters this week. "I'm begging for mercy from the media here."

Thais say they cannot remember a flood season that compares to this. So far, the death toll stands at about 320, most from drowning, with a total of nine million people affected in 27 of the country's 77 districts.

The estimate of damage to shops, stalled factories and flooded farmland is $3bn. Operations at four major power stations have been suspended and industrial zones of Bangkok have fallen foul of the water, which covers a third of the country's provinces.

Ms Yingluck said the plan called for the release of about 10 million cubic metres of water to enter the city's canals on route to the sea.

An additional 50,000 members of the armed forces and 30,000 police have been placed on standby to help in flood relief efforts and shelters have been provided for 45,000 people, due to evacuate their homes. "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. "Blaming each other won't help. Today we need unity to solve the problem."

For officials in Bangkok, advised by a team of local and international experts, they can only hope their strategy pays off. "It's water on a scale we have not seen before. Not even back in 1995," said Mr Boonpracong. "It's like Hurricane Katrina across half of Thailand."