- Associated Press - Sunday, October 16, 2011

BANGKOK (AP) — The Thai government expressed confidence Sunday that Bangkok will escape Thailand’s worst flooding in decades, as the capital’s elaborate barriers held strong and floodwaters began receding from submerged plains to the north.

Agriculture Minister Theera Wongsamut said the largest mass of runoff water flowing southward had passed through Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River and into the Gulf of Thailand, and that the river’s levels would rise no higher. He stopped short of saying the threat to Bangkok had passed completely.

The capital is being shielded by an elaborate system of flood walls, canals, dikes and underground tunnels. But if any of the defenses fail, floodwaters could begin seeping into the city of 9 million people.

“People have faith these walls will work,” a saffron-robed monk named Pichitchai said as he peaked over stacks of sandbags added in recent days to help protect a Buddhist temple along a canal in northwestern Bangkok. The 36-year-old monk uses only one name.

The agriculture minister said floodwaters in the central provinces of Singburi, Angthong and hard-hit Ayutthaya — all just north of Bangkok — have begun to recede, signaling that the pressure on the capital could ease. A spokesman for the government’s flood relief center, Wim Rungwattanajinda, said floodwaters also have decreased in Nakhon Sawan province in the same area.

“People in Bangkok should be at ease that this water is being diverted without passing through” the capital, Mr. Wim said.

Relentless monsoon rains that began in late July have affected two-thirds of the country, drowning agricultural land, swamping hundreds of factories and swallowing low-lying villages along the way.

Nearly 300 people have been killed so far, while more than 200 major highways and roads have been shut along with the main rail lines to the north. The government says property damage and losses could reach $3 billion dollars. The most-affected provinces are just north of Bangkok, including Ayutthaya, a former capital which is home to ancient and treasured stone temples. Water there and in other towns has risen in some places 6 feet high, forcing thousands of people to abandon their homes.

Despite widespread fears that disaster could touch Bangkok, the city so far has been mostly untouched. Heavy rains poured down on the capital for much of the day Sunday, but life was otherwise normal with shopping malls open and elevated trains crisscrossing the city.

Mr. Theera, the agriculture minister, told reporters that the “level of water has already subsided” on the Chao Phraya River. It “will not be higher than the barriers,” he said.

Sean Boonpracong, another spokesman for Bangkok’s flood relief center, said several days of higher-than-normal tides — which have slowed runoff through the Chao Phraya to the sea — also have eased.

Speaking late Saturday, Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra said he was worried about barriers on the northwest side of the capital, saying they were not as strong as in other parts of Bangkok and water could flood around them and into the city from the west. But on Sunday he said the situation was still under control.

Associated Press journalists who traveled to that area Sunday found no serious flooding in the district bordering on neighboring Nonthaburi and Nokhon Pathom provinces. Canals were not overflowing, and although some residents still were reinforcing sandbag walls, few were worried.

Over the past few days, government officials have voiced increasing confidence the capital would survive without major damage. On Sunday, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra echoed those sentiments again, saying, “I believe Bangkok will be safe.”

Mr. Yingluck spoke just after presiding over a ceremony in which an armada of more than 1,000 small boats stationed in dozens of spots on the Chao Phraya turned on their engines in an effort to help propel water down the river. It wasn’t immediately clear what impact the effort would have.

Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Sinfah Tunsarawuth contributed to this report.

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