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In Bangkok, Residents' Anger Rises With Floodwaters

Nov 4, 2011
Originally published on November 4, 2011 8:23 pm

Heavy monsoon rains that began two months ago in Thailand have killed more than 400 people and show no sign of abating as the floodwaters make their way south into the crowded capital, Bangkok.

Anxious residents have stripped store shelves bare of water, rice and other essentials as they wait. And tempers are flaring as some poorer residents complain that their homes and businesses are being sacrificed to protect more affluent and industrial areas closer to the city center.

Bangkok — which means the "city of angels" in Thai — dodged a bullet last weekend when the Chao Phraya river crested at a record high but did not burst its banks and flood downtown as feared.

The capital's business and commercial heart remains dry. Yet some residents of outlying districts say that's because the authorities directed the water toward their areas, putting them underwater.

One neighborhood in Bangkok's Sam Wa district is on the wrong side of the floodgates, literally. The water there rises up to the windows of the homes that line the canal, while dogs and their owners are squeezed together on stacks of sandbags or makeshift rafts.

Shopkeeper Saoem, who gives only one name, helps her sister wash dishes in front of her flooded home. She says houses in the area have been waist-deep in water for weeks.

A few days ago, angry residents decided to do something about it. They punched a hole in the nearby floodgate, hoping it would drain the water away from their homes and toward the city center. She knows it was wrong, she says, but people were just fed up.

The government always takes care of the rich people, but there are lots of factories on the other side of the floodgate that employ ordinary Thais, too, she says.

If those factories flood, she says, then those people won't be able to work, so the government should keep that from happening.

"I just wish they'd do something to help us get rid of the water here," she says.

Saoem is right about the business side.

The Bangkok area accounts for nearly half the country's GDP. The floods have already closed more than 1,000 factories, including several auto and computer hard-drive makers north of Bangkok in the tourist town of Ayutthaya.

Many factories are likely to be closed for months. And manufacturers are already warning of supply-chain disruptions worldwide. Flooded farmland means the country's rice crop is going to take a hit as well, and analysts say Thailand's economic growth rate for the year will be halved as a result of the floods.

But Thais are still better off than most in the region. Cambodia and Laos, in particular, also have been hit hard by recent flooding, and their governments are ill-equipped to help.

About a hundred yards from shopkeeper Saoem's house, municipal workers have now repaired the hole in the Sam Wa floodgate, and dozens of police are on hand to prevent local residents from punching a hole through it again. Police Col. Ake Ekasat says so far, so good.

"At the moment, it's quiet. The situation is quiet. But maybe they come again, you know?" he says.

Frustration is building all over the city, as more and more areas become flooded.

On Thursday, a large crowd of people demonstrated near the main airport — which has not been flooded — after the government opened several floodgates to protect a nearby industrial park. The demonstrators feared the water would inundate their land instead.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

In Thailand, there is no end in sight to the water. Flooding has killed more than 400 people since unusually heavy monsoon rains began two months ago. And floodwaters continue to pour south into Bangkok. There, anxious residents have stripped the store shelves bare of drinking water, rice and other essentials.

And as Michael Sullivan reports now, tempers in the capital are running short.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The city of angels dodged a bullet last weekend when the Chao Phraya River crested at a record high, but did not burst its banks and flood the downtown, as authorities had feared. The capital's business and commercial heart remains dry - too dry for some residents of outlying districts already under water, who complain their homes and businesses are being sacrificed to protect more affluent and industrial areas closer to the city.

This neighborhood in Bangkok's Sam Wa district is on the wrong side of the floodgates, literally. The water here up to the windows of the homes that line the canal. Dogs and their people squeeze together on stacks of sandbags or makeshift rafts.

SAOEM: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: Shopkeeper Saoem, one name only, helps her sister wash dishes in front of her flooded home. The houses here, she says, have been waist-deep in water for weeks and a few days ago, angry residents decided to do something about it. They punched a hole in the nearby floodgate, hoping it would drain the water away from their homes and toward the city's center. She knows it was wrong, she says, but people were just fed up.

SAOEM: (Foreign language spoken).

SULLIVAN: The government always takes care of the rich people, she says, but there's lots of factories on the other side of the floodgate that employ ordinary Thais, too. If those factories flood, she says, then those people won't be able to work, so the government should keep that from happening, she says. I just wish they'd do something to help us get rid of the water here.

She's right about the business side. The Bangkok area accounts for nearly half the country's GDP. The floods have already closed more than 1,000 factories, including several auto and computer hard drive makers north of Bangkok in the tourist town of Ayutthaya. Many are likely to be closed for months, their workers idled, too. And manufacturers are already warning of supply chain disruptions worldwide.

Flooded farm land means the country's rice crop is going to take a hit, as well, and analysts say Thailand's economic growth rate for the year will be halved as a result of the floods.

But Thais are still better off than most in the region. Cambodia and Laos, in particular, have also been hard hit by recent flooding, their governments ill-equipped to help.

About 100 yards from shopkeeper Saoem's house, municipal workers have now repaired the hole in the Sam Wa floodgate and dozens of police are now on hand to prevent local residents from punching a hole through it again.

Police Colonel Ake Ekasat says, so far, so good.

AKE EKASAT: The situation here now is quiet. Everything okay now. At the moment, it's quiet, you know. It's quiet now, but maybe they come again, you know.

SULLIVAN: Frustration is building all over the city, as more and more areas become flooded. Yesterday, a large crowd of people demonstrated near the airport, the one that isn't under water. After the government opened several floodgates to protect a nearby industrial park, the demonstrators fearful the water would come to their land instead.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.