BANGKOK Receding floodwaters north of Bangkok have reduced the threat to the Thai capital, the prime minister said on Saturday, but high tides in the Gulf of Thailand will still test the city's flood defences.
"If things go on like this, we expect floodwater in Bangkok to recede within the first week of November," Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said on national television.
Bangkok's main waterway, the Chao Phraya River, overflowed its banks in some areas on Saturday during high tides in the Gulf of Thailand, about 20 km (12 miles) to the south. The high tides will last until Monday.
The city's normally bustling Chinatown was flooded, as were the streets around the glittering Grand Palace and Temple of the Reclining Buddha, areas usually thronged with tourists.
Buildings across Bangkok have been sand-bagged or walled off for protection. Many people have left their cars on elevated roads, although most of the inner city is dry.
Many others have taken advantage of a special five-day holiday to flee the city. Those left behind have stocked up on water, food, life jackets and even boats.
Thailand's worst floods in half a century have killed 381 people since July, wiped out a quarter of the main rice crop in the world's biggest rice exporter, forced up global prices of computer hard drives and caused delays in global auto production after destroying industrial estates.
The death toll rose overnight when a boat carrying a family of four capsized in strong wind, drowning the father, mother and eldest son in three-metre (10 feet) floodwater. Their 6-year-old daughter, the only one wearing a life vest, survived.
In Bangkok, which was sunny on Saturday, prices of eggs have quadrupled as jittery residents stockpile staples. Many shop shelves are empty but the government said flood victims would have enough bottled water, dairy products, pork and chicken.
Cash was also in heavy demand. The Bank of Thailand has repeated that there is enough money circulating to meet demand for three months following a crush of withdrawals. Nearly 400 bank branches have closed across the country due to the floods.
The floods, which followed unusually heavy monsoon rain, have submerged 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) of land, an area roughly the size of Kuwait or Swaziland, turning some towns into urban reservoirs.
In some areas, crocodiles have escaped from flooded farms and snakes searching for dry land have slithered into homes.
Yingluck said the ebbing flood in northern provinces, thanks to the draining of water into the sea through canals and pumps, had reduced the risk of large volumes bearing down on Bangkok, which sits only two metres (6 ft) above sea level.
"In this critical situation, there is some good news for us. Our water-management plan went smoothly during previous days," she said, offering the city the first encouraging words in days.
MAINTAINING THE DIKES
Experts were also cautiously optimistic central Bangkok's network of embankments and sand-bag walls would hold.
"We have to conclude that it's under control but we still have to do as much as we can to maintain the dikes," said Anon Sanitwong Na Ayutthaya, an academic on the government's flood team.
Seree Supharatid, director of the Disaster Warning Centre at Rangsit University, said coordination between city, provincial and national authorities was critical.
"If the government can manage the pumping system smoothly, with good cooperation, we may see the water receding by early November," he said.
Although Yingluck expressed confidence inner Bangkok could be spared, the city's suburbs faced growing misery.
Authorities expect the whole of Thonburi district, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya, to be inundated within three days and Yingluck said the water would remain high due to a lack of canals. Seventeen roads across Bangkok are closed.
The Pinklao district of Thonburi, packed with restaurants, shops and homes, was under waist-deep water. Some residents waded through the flood, lugging televisions and furniture.
People in Bangkok's northern Sai Mai district sat on rafts built of plastic bottles and wooden crates. Shop owners perched on sandbags, staring out at roads turned into rivers.
Water levels appeared to have risen in the riverside Bang Phlad district, also to the west, with many people using boats to make their way through the rubbish-strewn flow.
The Chao Phraya is rising as much as 2.6 metres (8.5 ft) above sea level over the high tides and many governments have warned their citizens against non-essential travel to the city of 12 million people. Singapore Airlines said it was suspending its Bangkok flights from next Tuesday to Thursday.
Authorities have called for evacuations in four of Bangkok's 50 districts. Japanese engineers have been flown in to advise on how to protect the main international airport and the subway. Authorities have built a 23.5 km (15 mile) dike around the airport and have reassured travellers it would hold.
Bangkok accounts for 41 percent of Thailand's $319 billion economy. But even if the inner city is spared, the deluge in industrialised provinces to the north has had a global impact.
Thailand is the second-largest exporter of computer hard drives and Southeast Asia's biggest auto production hub. Global prices for hard drives are rising due to a flood-related shortage of major components used in personal computers.
Drive manufacturers have raised prices by 20 to 40 percent since water poured into factories this month, Chuck Kostalnick, senior vice president of international electronics distributor Avnet Inc, told Reuters.
"The word we're getting is that prices are going to continue to go up," he said. "This isn't going to be a one-time event."