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Bangkok residents make run on lifejackets

The main river coursing through Thailand's capital swelled to record highs Friday, briefly flooding riverside buildings amid fears that flood defenses could break and swamp the city.
/ Source: news services

Amid heightened fears that floodwaters could swamp Bangkok, saffron-robed monks and soldiers piled sandbags outside the city's most treasured temples and palaces Friday as the Thai capital's main river swelled precariously beyond its banks, spilling ankle-high water briefly into some of the main tourist districts.

High tides expected to peak on Saturday are pushing the Chao Phraya river to its brink, and the rising water is posing one of the biggest tests yet to the city's anti-flood defenses. Overflows so far have lightly inundated riverside streets from Chinatown to the white-walled royal Grand Palace and the neighboring Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Most of the water has receded at low tide. Still, some worried Bangkokians are buying up bright orange lifejackets and inflatable boats, fearing the worst is yet to come.

"You have to prepare," said Fon Kanokporn, a banker who bought a rubber boat from a store that had several hanging as advertisements from trees out front.

Employees at the shop said they had sold well over 3,000 boats in the last week. The brisk business is a measure of the fear gripping Bangkok and a reflection of the tragedy of neighboring provinces that have been submerged for weeks. Several buyers said they needed boats because their submerged homes outside the capital were no longer accessible by road.

Three months of relentless monsoon rains have caused the worst flooding in Thailand in nearly 60 years, triggering a national crisis that has overwhelmed Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government.

The water has crept from the central plains south toward the Gulf of Thailand for weeks, engulfing a third of the country and killing nearly 400 people and displacing 110,000 more. Now, Bangkok is in the way — surrounded by behemoth pools of water flowing around and through the city via a complex network of canals and rivers.

The government is worried major barriers and dikes could break since they were never designed to hold back so much water for so long. And this weekend, higher than normal tides are obstructing the critical flow of runoff from the north, fueling fears that parts of downtown could be swamped.

On Friday, army trucks dumped thousands of sandbags outside the riverside Siriraj Hospital, where Thailand's ailing and revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej has stayed since 2009.

Elsewhere along the Chao Phraya, dozens of monks at the 200-year-old Temple of the Dawn stacked hundreds more along a secondary barrier to protect against river overflows.

"It's likely going to get higher, but I don't think its going to get high enough to cause chaos," said Phramaha Abhin, a 42-year-old monk. Still, he said, "we cannot neglect the risk to this temple. It's one of the country's landmarks, one of the things Thailand is known for. We have to protect it."

So far, most of the city has remained untouched, and tourists are still snapping pictures in riverside districts as always.

But little by little, the city is slowing down.

Transportation affected
This week, floodwaters pushed into Don Muang airport, used mostly for domestic flights, shutting it down. And on Friday, the State Railway of Thailand said all train services from Bangkok to southern Thailand were suspended after the tracks in Bangkok's suburbs were submerged by floodwaters.

Thais and expatriates alike continued to leave Bangkok as foreign governments urged their citizens to avoid the threatened city, citing transportation difficulties and shortages of certain food items.

Seven of Bangkok's 50 districts — all in the northern outskirts — are heavily flooded, and residents have fled aboard bamboo rafts and army trucks and by wading through waist-deep water. Eight other districts have seen less serious flooding.

New flooding was reported Friday in the city's southeast when a canal overflowed in a neighborhood on the outer parts of Sukhumvit Road. And high tides briefly touched riverside areas closer to the city's central business districts of Silom and Sathorn.

But the day passed without major incident.

"It is clear that although the high tides haven't reached 2.5 meters, it was high enough to prolong the suffering of those living outside of the flood walls and to threaten those living behind deteriorating walls," Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra said.

The flood walls protecting much of the inner city are 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) high, and Saturday's high tide is expected to reach 2.6 meters (8.5 feet).

International charity Save the Children said it was concerned that crocodiles and snakes were lurking in stagnant floodwaters it said are growing filthier by the day.

"Every day we see children playing in the water, bathing or wading through it trying to make their way to dry ground," said Annie Bodmer-Roy, the group's spokeswoman in Thailand.

The aid group said many families have been left without access to running water or clean toilets.

"There is a very real risk of waterborne or communicable diseases such as diarrhea and skin infections taking hold if families can't maintain basic standards of hygiene," Bodmer-Roy said. "It is essential that the risks facing children in this crisis are understood and steps taken to keep them safe."

Water shortage
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 metres 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.

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.