By Martin Petty and Ploy Ten Kate
BANGKOK (Reuters) - As Thailand's capital braces for a surge of water, its residents are fighting to both keep it at bay and find enough of it to drink.
The worst flooding in half a century has triggered panic buying that has emptied Bangkok's supermarkets of bottled water. With some highways submerged and major production plants shut down, drinking water is fast becoming a precious commodity.
Supermarkets are racing to find new producers and import crates of bottled water because most plants supplying the city of 12 million people are located in central provinces, some of which are under two meters of water.
"The water shortage right now is critical," said Patchara Rattakul, chief operating officer of Haad Thip Pcl, which distributes Thai Nam Thip water in Thailand.
"I agree with the government's policy to import water from outside to solve the short-term problem -- we have no other choice," he told Reuters.
Shares in Haad Thip, which has a franchise from Coca-Cola, surged more than 6 percent Wednesday on expectations the company would benefit from the extra demand.
Supermarkets in the capital are rationing instant noodles, rice and eggs, but bottled water is nowhere to be seen, with crates of beer now filling swathes of empty shelf space.
While tens of thousands of people have taken advantage of a special five-day holiday and fled the capital, others have been doing shuttle-runs in pickup trucks to stock up on bottled water from eastern towns like Pattaya and Chon Buri.
Serm Suk Pcl, a maker of Pepsi and Crystal drinking water, closed its plants in Nakhon Sawan and Pathum Thani on October 20 due to the floods. The two provinces are among the worst affected.
Serm Suk has three plants in Surat Thani in the south, Nakhon Ratchasima in the northeast and Chonburi, about 80 km (50 miles) east of Bangkok, but they have neither the capacity nor enough plastic bottles to ease the shortage in a thirsty and increasingly desperate capital.
"We won't have enough, especially after our Pathum Thani plant halted, because that is the main plant supplying Bangkok and the central region," said a company executive, who declined to be identified.
Big C Supercenter Pcl, which has 37 stores in and around Bangkok, said it was working hard to bring stocks into the capital and had turned to small producers because only one major supplier, Thai Nam Thip, was operating.
He said the firm was able to supply its stores across the country with 11,000 cases a day, or 112,000 liters, down from more than 30,000 cases prior to the crisis.
"Demand has skyrocketed," a spokesman said. "As soon as supplies reach the stores, they're gone in minutes."
Commerce Minister Kittirat Na Ranong said Friday there was enough bottled water to supply consumers in flooded areas but he made no mention of the shortage in the capital.
Haad Thip's Patchara said his firm and Coca-Cola had agreed to modify machinery used for soft drinks to produce drinking water instead and it would provide it to consumers for free.
But the problem goes beyond bottled water.
Flooding has contaminated water used by the Metropolitan Waterworks Authority (MWA) for the city's tap water. Some residents have complained about its odor and yellow color, while rumors have swirled there could be a shortage.
MWA assistant governor Vikrom Suwanchompoo said output had been cut from 5 million cubic meters a day to 3.5 million and there should be no concerns about contamination or supply.
"We are supplying 10 million people, so this is sufficient," he told Reuters. "There is no problem with the quality of the tap water."
Not everyone is convinced.
"The government said the water is safe to drink. Personally I don't believe it," said Bangkok resident Petchara Sripetch.
(Additional reporting by Angie Teo; Editing by Alan Raybould and Paul Tait)