- - Sunday, November 6, 2011

BANGKOK — Residents who have had to wade through filthy, waist-high water for days have begun punching holes through man-made barriers to drain their poor neighborhoods of stagnant water as record flooding that has killed more than 500 people inundates Thailand’s capital.

The angry residents’ sabotage to Bangkok’s dikes and sandbag walls - which have protected the city’s tony downtown area from rising water - prompted a desperate assessment by government leaders.

“If the government cannot control the protesters … all districts will be flooded,” said Bangkok Deputy Gov. Thirachon Manopaipibul.

On Sunday, about 60 percent of Bangkok was submerged by storm-fed floodwater that has washed through this Southeast Asian nation since July.

Rancid brown water has seeped south across Bangkok at a rate of about a mile per day, forcing thousands of residents to wade through the garbage-strewn floodtide to reach food, work, transportation and hospitals.

Government officials have issued warnings to waders on how to avoid disease, electric shocks - and crocodiles that have escaped from flooded zoos.

Meanwhile, Bangkok’s glitzy, bustling, tourist-friendly inner streets have remained mostly dry thanks to reinforced canals, dikes, sluice gates and more than 1 million sandbags. The barriers have allowed government offices, embassies, luxury shopping malls and five-star hotels to function normally.

But that dry urban space is shrinking. As a result, many of Bangkok’s 10 million people have become increasingly pessimistic and distrustful of the government’s ability to protect the capital, provide relief or drain the water, which is predicted to take four to six weeks to recede.

“Foreigners will lose confidence in us and wonder why we cannot save our own capital,” said Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, as she tried to urge squabbling regional and city officials to cooperate in attempts to deal with the national crisis that has claimed 506 lives.

Downtown dwellers have enjoyed relatively normal lives through the flood - going to work, eating in cafes and shopping in boutiques. But they also are stockpiling food, drinking water and other supplies while receiving nonstop TV, radio and Internet updates about where the murky floodwater is advancing in the suburbs.

“Floodwaters are now threatening to inundate the entire capital,” the Bangkok Post reported Thursday.

Thousands already have fled the capital to live in hotels or with relatives elsewhere in Thailand, or have joined 3,000 people in emergency shelters that have, in some instances, been forced to relocate after water seeped into their sites.

But most people in Bangkok appear determined to tough it out, including many who wade each day up to their knees, waists or necks to get fresh food, drinking water or medical care.

For many people, going to work means donning sandals and shorts to wade to whatever transport is available, then changing into office clothes upon arrival.

Short of staff and running low on blood supplies, hospitals have evacuated many patients.

More than 13,000 air force troops retreated to other cities from their main base in Bangkok’s flooded Don Muang airport, and relocated armored personnel carriers and U.S.-supplied C-130 military transport planes.

Bangkok’s elevation averages about 6 feet above sea level.

The sprawling, low-lying capital is built on a flood plain and is cut in two by the Chao Phraya River, which drains the country’s rain into the Gulf of Thailand, 15 miles to the south.

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