Thailand calls holiday to allow escape from floods
(Reuters) - Thailand announced a five-day holiday on Tuesday to give people the chance to escape floods closing in on Bangkok as authorities ordered the evacuation of a housing estate on the outskirts of the city after a protective wall gave way.
The cabinet declared October 27-31 a holiday in Bangkok and 20 provinces affected by the country's worst flooding in 50 years as weekend high tides in the Gulf of Thailand could complicate efforts to divert water away from the low-lying capital.
The floods have forced the closure of seven industrial estates in Ayutthaya, Nonthaburi and Pathum Thani provinces bordering Bangkok, causing billions of dollars of damage, disrupting supply chains for industry and putting about 650,000 people temporarily out of work.
The cabinet announced a 325 billion baht budget on Tuesday to help rebuild the country, mostly for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), small vendors and individuals.
"If they get back to normal quickly, it will help push the economy forward," Finance Minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala said of the businesses.
The floods have killed at least 366 people since mid-July and disrupted the lives of nearly 2.5 million, with more than 113,000 living in temporary shelters and 720,000 seeking medical attention.
Although authorities are scrambling to pump out water from the Bangkok region, record-high water levels in the Chao Phraya river that winds through the city raise the risk of floods in central Bangkok, especially if heavy rain returns when the tide is high.
Don Muang Airport, Bangkok's second biggest, said it would temporarily close at 5 p.m. (1000 GMT) on Tuesday as passengers and staff might have problems reaching the terminal because of the flooding. It expected to reopen on November 1.
Airports of Thailand AOT.BK said the main Suvarnabhumi Airport was not affected because it was on higher ground. However, Thai Airways International Pcl THAI.BK, which operates out of Suvarnabhumi, said it may reduce flights because of staffing concerns.
Parts of Don Muang, Lak Si and Sai Mai districts in northern Bangkok have been under water since Saturday and the flood crisis centre in Don Muang may have to relocate.
The centre instructed residents of the Muang Ake housing estate in northern Bangkok to evacuate on Tuesday after a flood protection wall in nearby Pathum Thani province was breached, adding to tension in the capital, where residents have fortified their homes and hoarded food and water.
The Commerce Ministry said on Tuesday it would relax import tariffs and regulation on food, water and some consumer goods in short supply as a result of hoarding.
Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra issued a new flood warning late on Monday for Bang Phlad district, west of the Chao Phraya river and closer to Bangkok's commercial heart.
Bang Phlad is home to department stores, universities and hospitals. Siriraj Hospital, where Thailand's revered king has been for more than two years, is nearby.
Government spokeswoman Thitima Chaisang said the holiday had been called due to the high tides and to give residents the option of leaving Bangkok. Sukhumbhand said the holiday would allow authorities to handle the crisis better.
Authorities opened most canal gates in Bangkok late last week, a high-risk operation to take pressure off defensive walls in the north and divert water around the east and west of the capital into the sea but raised the chance of inner-city flooding.
At least eight million cubic metres of water is being pumped out daily. The Meteorological Department has forecast scattered showers in the capital on Tuesday and Wednesday after three dry days.
Hundreds of people were evacuated over the weekend as water in Lak Si and Don Muang reached levels as high as two metres (six feet), spilling out of swollen canals and rivers. Several crocodiles have been killed or captured in swamped residential areas of Ayutthaya.
A Bank of Thailand official said no decision had yet been taken on whether commercial banks and financial markets would be closed for the holiday. The central bank's headquarters is by the Chao Phraya river but it has high walls and there were no signs of flooding there on Tuesday.
At least 227 bank branches have been forced to close by floods, most of them in the provinces north of Bangkok.
The central banks of Japan and Thailand said on Tuesday they were looking at a mechanism to offer funds in baht backed by Japanese government bonds to help affected Japanese firms. The Bank of Thailand also said it was discussing similar plans with other countries.
Big Japanese firms such as Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), Sony Corp (6758.T) and Nikon Corp (7731.T) have had to close down operations in Thailand.