Thailand battles to keep Bangkok safe from floods

Monsoon that has already killed nearly 300 people is sweeping south towards the capital

Beside a wall of sandbags that has become a front line in Thailand's battle to prevent an epic season of floods from reaching Bangkok, fish swim through knee-high water inside Sawat Taengon's home. On one side, a brown river pours through a canal diverting water around the Thai capital, just to the south. On the other side, homes are unscathed. Whether floodwaters breach fortified barriers like these this weekend will decide whether Bangkok will be swamped or spared.

As of late yesterday at least, the alarmed metropolis of glass skyscrapers and gilded Buddhist temples remained unaffected, and authorities were confident it would narrowly escape disaster. "We just hope it doesn't go higher," said Mr Taengon, 38, a construction worker whose home had the misfortune of being inside the vast sandbag wall, which runs at least 2.5 miles along a canal in Rangsit, just north of Bangkok's city limits.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government says most of Bangkok, which is only about six feet above sea level, sits safely behind an elaborate system of flood walls, canals, dykes and seven underground drainage tunnels that were completed over the past year. The latest floods – which have killed 297 people and are, says the Prime Minister, the worst in Thai history – are posing the biggest test those defences have faced.

Yet there were encouraging signs yesterday. Run-off from the north had decreased slightly, and high tides that could have impeded critical water flows to the Gulf of Thailand have not been severe as expected. Water levels along the main Chao Phraya river and key canals to the north in places such as Rangsit are still manageable. But there could be trouble if any critical barriers break.

On a bridge above a flooded canal in Rangsit, Colonel Wirat Nakjoo echoed the need to be vigilant. "The worst is not over," he said. "The dams are at near capacity and there's still a lot of water that needs to be released." Government workers there were taking no chances, stacking new sandbags atop a canalside wall about 4.5ft high.

Monsoon deluges that have pounded Thailand since late July have affected eight million people and swept across two-thirds of the country, drowning agricultural land and swallowing low-lying villages along the way. More than 200 major roads are impassable, and the main rail lines to the north have been shut down. Authorities say property damage and losses could reach $3bn (£1.9bn). Thailand's lucrative tourist destinations – beaches and islands such as Koh Samui, Krabi and Phuket – have not been affected, though, and its international airports remain open.

In the past few days, government officials have voiced increasing confidence the capital would survive without major damage, but those assurances have failed to stop Bangkokians from raiding supermarket shelves to stock up on bottled water, dried noodles, batteries for torches and candles. Gates to the city's metro trains have been sealed with steel barriers. Worried car owners are cramming vehicles into high-rise parking spaces at the city's shopping malls and airports. Some international hotels and shops have barricaded their entrances with sandbags – not knowing where or when or even if flooding will occur.

But life in Bangkok remains normal, and the calm contrasts sharply with heavily flooded neighbouring provinces, including Ayutthaya and Pathum Thani, where Rangsit is located. Television stations broadcasting images of swamped towns – showing waterlogged residents in canoes and braving chest-high water – have inadvertently fuelled fears of imminent doom in the capital.

Earlier yesterday, a 10-man team of US marines arrived on a survey mission to determine how Washington can offer help. The marines were travelling aboard an American military cargo jet full of bottled water and sandbags needed to reinforce flood barriers. In Rangsit, Sawat Taengon said floods occur nearly every year, though never this bad. The water in the canal beside his home began rising a month ago, he said, and the sandbags have risen along with it.

Last week, his family began shifting their valuables to higher ground after flood waters seeped in. Now, his wife and four children move through their home along makeshift wooden planks that allow them to avoid the water lapping below. "It's going to get higher," he said. "We need to be prepared." AP