Thai floods inch closer to city centre

BANGKOK, Oct 28, 2011 (AFP) - Floods that have sparked an exodus from the Thai capital crept closer to the city centre on Friday, but hopes grew that emergency barriers would prevent a major overflow from Bangkok's main river.

AFP - A boy walks through the floodwaters in China town near the Chao Praya river in Bangkok on October 27, 2011.

The city of 12 million people is on heightened alert because of threats on two fronts -- a seasonal high tide this weekend that is expected to coincide with the arrival of a mass of water from the flood-stricken central plains.

The three-month crisis -- triggered by unusually heavy monsoon rains -- has left at least 377 people dead and damaged millions of homes and livelihoods, mostly in northern and central Thailand.

While the government is largely focused on defending the capital, people in the worst-hit provinces north of the city have endured weeks of flooding.

Thousands of residents have left Bangkok after the government declared a special five-day holiday, flocking to rail and bus stations in the city and jamming roads as they head to areas out of the path of the water.

So far, however, central Bangkok has only seen minor inundation in areas along the main Chao Phraya River, including near the Grand Palace, with most of the city centre still dry.

"The Chao Phraya overflowed and flooded some areas along the river but it receded quite quickly," a spokesman for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration said after Friday morning's high tide.

Tourists walking through ankle-deep water near the Grand Palace appeared unfazed, despite a slew of travel warnings from foreign governments.

"It's adding to our experience," said 32-year-old British honeymooner Melanie Willoughby. "They all seem to be coping well. The only thing we found is that it's been hard to get (drinking) water."

Friday morning's high tide -- measured at 2.47 metres above sea level -- was lower than expected, raising hopes that the river's flood barriers would prevent a major overflow.

"The Navy predicted 2.57 metres on Saturday but I think it will be bit lower based on today," said an official at the city's Drainage and Sewerage Department who did not want to be named.

"So the walls can still hold it back, despite flooding on the river banks which is usual during high tide."

At the same time billions of cubic metres of water lie north of the capital, creeping slowly southwards as the authorities attempt to channel the muddy brown liquid through the city's canals and rivers.

Some areas in northern Bangkok have seen waist-deep flooding, leading to the shutdown of the city's second airport, Don Mueang.

On Thursday an emotional Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, in office for barely two months, warned that the country could not resist the "force of nature" by trying to hold back the water forever.

The authorities have opened sluice gates around the city to allow water to flow through canals but experts and officials have given conflicting information about the risks of major flooding in downtown Bangkok.

More than 100,000 people have sought refuge at emergency shelters and tens of thousands of troops have joined the relief efforts.

The crisis is taking its toll on the lucrative Thai tourism industry, with the United States joining other countries including Britain, Singapore, Canada in advising against all but essential travel to Bangkok.

Most of the country's top tourist destinations have been unaffected by the disaster and Suvarnabhumi Airport, the main gateway to Thailand, is operating as usual, along with the city's subway and elevated train.

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