Surviving the Flood in Bangkok

Thailand’s floods are creeping inexorably closer to central Bangkok, prompting warnings about how to avoid disease, electrocution, poisonous snakes, crocodiles and other dangers in the infectious, garbage-strewn water, which is moving across the city at about a mile a day.

Although the Disease Control Department says the threat of communicable diseases is not serious, the filthy water has the potential to cause a cocktail of communicable diseases including cholera, diphtheria, dysentery and leptospirosis, a usually rare but severe bacterial infection that includes pain, dry cough and other ailments. Two leptospirosis deaths have been reported plus one from cholera although none have been reported in Bangkok itself. Parents have been warned to keep their children from swimming in the contaminated water.

The government has been unable to stop sabotage by angry residents who are punching holes through some dikes, sluice gates and sandbag walls to drain deep, stagnant water from their neighborhoods which are on the wrong side of Bangkok's barriers.

"If the government cannot control the protesters...all districts will be flooded," said Bangkok's deputy governor Thirachon Manopaipibul. On Nov. 6, about 60 percent of the city was under at least some water, which continued to smother more homes, shops, factories, roads and other infrastructure. At last count, 506 people were dead although none have been in Bangkok.

"Foreigners will lose confidence in us, and wonder why we cannot save our own capital," Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said while asking squabbling officials to cooperate. So far, across the country 506 deaths have been reported.

Bangkok's glitzy, bustling, tourist-friendly inner streets have remained mostly dry thanks to reinforced canals, dikes, sluice gates and more than a million sandbags, enabling government offices, embassies, luxury shopping malls, five-star hotels, condominiums and mansions to function alongside slums, markets and riverside port facilities. But that dry urban space is shrinking.

As a result, Bangkok's 10 million residents have become increasingly pessimistic and distrustful of the government's ability to protect the capital, provide relief or quickly drain the foul-smelling brown water, which is predicted to take four to six weeks to disappear.

People in Bangkok's dry downtown live in a parallel universe, enjoying relatively normal lives, going to work, eating in restaurants and shopping. But they are also nervously stockpiling food, drinking water and other supplies, while remaining glued to non-stop TV, radio and internet updates about where the floods are advancing across Bangkok's western, northern and eastern suburbs.

For many residents, the approaching floods have created primal fears of how to survive with dwindling drinking water and food, the possible loss of electricity and increasing isolation in homes surrounded by water carrying garbage, excrement, infectious bacteria, toxic chemicals and an occasional animal carcass.

Thousands of have fled the capital to live in hotels, or with relatives elsewhere in Thailand, or joined 3,000 people in emergency shelters which have, in some cases, been forced to relocate after floods seeped into their sites.

But most people in Bangkok appear determined to tough it out, including many who are wading each day -- up to their knees, waist or neck -- to get fresh food and drinking water, or medical care. For many, getting to and from jobs includes wearing shorts and sandals to wade from home to board whatever transport is available and, after arriving, changing into office clothes.

Hospitals are running low on blood supplies, short of staff, and have evacuated many patients. Irreplaceable film and book archives have been destroyed. Many shops have shut down, enabling profiteers to increase prices for food, plastic rowboats, rubber boots and other items, while temporary apartments in high-rise buildings are filling up.

"Our much-flustered Commerce Minister says if eggs cost too much, eat something else," wrote columnist Thirasant Mann on Nov. 5. "Cake? Makes one pray they bring back the guillotine."

Thai media is teaching people how to create a do-it-yourself toilet by cutting a hole in a cheap plastic, four-legged stool, inserting a garbage bag, and straddling the hole on the stool's flat seat.

White-collar executives have been reduced to tears in their offices, describing how their newly purchased or recently renovated homes are now heavily flooded, destroying their automobiles and other possessions.

Near Bangkok's Phahonyothin Road, a hurriedly constructed, small wooden pier sticks out from a building's front door, across a water-covered sidewalk and into the flooded street, allowing people to arrive and depart by small boats servicing the public in knee-deep water.

Bangkok's elevation averages only six feet above sea level. The flat, sprawling capital is built on floodplain and is cut in two halves by the Chao Phraya River, which drains the country's rains into the Gulf of Thailand, 15 miles further south.

On a Twitter site #ThaiFloodEng, set up to exchange reliable information in English, people denounce the confused government's contradictory statements and post their own photos and eyewitness accounts, advising how deep the floods are on specific streets, where food and drinking water can be found, and other emergency information.

"Green mamba antidotes have arrived in Thailand," several people posted, after officials said 15 deadly, bright green African snakes might have escaped from a collector and be loose in Bangkok's floods. Earlier, officials warned that an unknown number of crocodiles escaped from flooded zoos, and several have been captured, tied up, and taken away by proud hunters.

"Fish swimming on the front porch," someone nicknamed "bkkbase" posted on the Twitter site, describing his stricken neighborhood.

When rising water approached one underground subway station, people worried that Bangkok's entire Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system could be shut.

"The MRT is a perfect living environment for crocs. Don't u think? Just come up for breakfast when they like," tweeted Lee Webster.

(Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist. He has reported news from Asia since 1978. His website is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com.)