Tempers flare on front lines of Thailand's floods

AP News
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Posted: Oct 31, 2011 11:34 AM
Tempers flare on front lines of Thailand's floods

Tempers flared along a flood barrier protecting Thailand's capital from a record deluge surging into the city, with angry residents scuffling with security forces Monday in an attempt to force open a floodgate that left their homes swamped.

The confrontation came as Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said she hoped that the floodwaters could be drained through Bangkok more quickly now that peak high tides that sent the city's main river to record heights have passed. Although much of the city is still dry, the situation remains grim in northern and western neighborhoods where water levels fed by the country's worst flooding in more than a half century are continuing to rise.

The tensions at the Klong Sam Wa floodgate in the city's northeast illustrate the rising anger in some neighborhoods that have been sacrificed to keep Bangkok's central business district and historic heart dry.

The residents grew increasingly agitated as the water levels climbed, and asked authorities to increase the amount of water being let through the gate. They used hammers and pickaxes on Monday to break through an earthen dike around the floodgate to let water out, and pushed and shoved security forces who tried to stop them.

Authorities had warned that allowing too much water through the gate could threaten an industrial estate downstream and raise the level of a main canal leading to inner Bangkok. Yingluck said the government had agreed to open the gate wider, but ordered officials to make sure the greater flow would not cause problems elsewhere.

Higher than normal tides pushing into the Chao Phraya river from the Gulf of Thailand in recent days have complicated efforts to drain floodwaters flowing from the country's central heartland, where vast areas have been submerged for up to two months. The runoff has put extreme pressure on pumps, sandbags and dikes protecting Bangkok, though they have largely held.

"If there is no more additional water, the current runoff might not cause heavy flooding in Bangkok," Yingluck said, though she noted that a massive amount of water still needs to pass through the capital's complex network of rivers, canals and tunnels as it makes its way to the sea.

While that was welcome news to people in Bangkok's dry downtown core who had braced for possible flooding all weekend, it was little relief for those in 15 of Bangkok's 50 districts that have already flooded. People in six of those districts have been told to evacuate.

"The water that came in our neighborhood was massive and had immense power," said Yibporn Ratanawit, 29, who lives in Thonburi, across the Chao Phraya from the capital's central area. "As we were stepping out of our gate to evacuate, one of our walls totally collapsed to the neighbor's side and the water rushed into their house. It was like a nightmare."

"I think the Thonburi side will all be gone eventually because the water has not stopped rising," she said.

As the government has focused in recent days on protecting the capital, there have been growing complaints that provinces north of the capital, some of which have been underwater for weeks or months, have been forgotten.

Yingluck sought to address those concerns Monday with a post on her Facebook page.

"The government is concerned about every individual who has experienced flooding, as well as those facing a lengthy period of floods," she said. "The government has emphasized with the provincial governors to exhaustively take care of the people."

The floods, which began in late July and were fed by unusually heavy monsoon rains and a string of tropical storms, have killed 381 people and affected more than a third of the country's provinces. The water has destroyed millions of acres (hectares) of crops and forced thousands of factories to close.

Yingluck said Monday that she hoped seven submerged industrial estates would be running again in about three months. The parks house the factories of global companies including Honda, Toshiba and Western Digital.

She said it would probably take another week or two for the water at the parks to drain and then the recovery and rebuilding effort could begin.

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Associated Press writer Vee Intarakratug contributed to this report.