BANGKOK — Thailand’s new prime minister is weathering criticism for her administration’s failures in dealing with massive floods that have killed 320 people and left thousands homeless — but decades of poor preparations are mostly to blame.
The public may be convinced that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra inherited Thailand’s traditionally weak funding to prevent floods, and allow her fledgling government to survive. But foreign investors may consider moving their wrecked factories to higher elevations — or other countries.
The floods, which have swamped one-third of the country since July, dissolved Mrs. Yingluck’s can-do image. Administration officials repeatedly have made statements, assuring people they were safe and then advising them to flee for their lives.
Despite her government’s poor management of the monsoon-swollen rivers, Mrs. Yingluck is not solely to blame, as she heads a lackluster Cabinet and a coalition of squabbling parties.
But the floods’ extensive destruction is mostly due to successive governments, headed by various political parties.
For decades, Thailand neglected to build enough canals, dikes and sluices across the country, and failed to sufficiently dredge rivers and create other ways for annual rains to drain, despite warnings from environmentalists.
Bangkok is a busy river port alongside the mighty Chao Phraya river, with an average elevation of 6 feet above sea level, making its streets a frequent target for floods caused by monsoons.
Other cities have also suffered floods during past years, despite demands from residents for better flood prevention schemes.
“Flood waters are coming from every direction, and we cannot control them because it’s a huge amount of water,” Mrs. Yingluck told the nation on Thursday, describing the deluge draining from northern and central regions, south to Bangkok and into the nearby Gulf of Thailand.
“We will try to warn people” so they can evacuate, she said. “This problem is very overwhelming. It is a national crisis, so I hope to get cooperation from everybody.”
Mrs. Yingluck announced Thursday that Bangkok could not be entirely protected, after its extensive eastern suburbs were sacrificed to the floods to relieve incoming water pressure on Bangkok’s northern flank.
“We cannot block the water forever,” from flooding parts of Bangkok, Mrs. Yingluck said Thursday. “The longer we block the water, the higher it gets … we need areas that water can be drained through, so the water can flow out to the sea.”
More rain drenched Bangkok late Thursday, as the capital’s 12 million people braced for the possibility that other neighborhoods could be suddenly inundated from the north.
Mrs. Yingluck’s strategy to divert incoming water away from Bangkok was used by previous governments — including last year — causing a similar outcry from people who watched helplessly as their property was deliberately inundated to protect the capital.
Previous governments also allowed cities, industrial zones, highways and other infrastructure to be constructed where floods naturally drain, blocking the water so it spilled onto heavily populated areas.
Decades of deforestation stripped the countryside of natural cover, and dams were allegedly mismanaged.
U.S. and other foreign companies were lured to this tropical country to profit from workers’ low wages and other cheap costs, but their modern factories and warehouses were devastated in the current floods because they are located in the Chao Phraya River Basin.
Shocked investors watched as swirling liquid drowned several sprawling, investor-friendly, low-lying “industrial parks” after breaching insufficient barriers.
The worst-affected industrial zones are 50 miles north of Bangkok where three rivers converge at Ayutthaya, which was founded in 1350 and became an opulent capital before it was abandoned in 1767 because elephant-riding troops from Burma invaded and destroyed it.
Multinationals that suspended or slowed operations due to the floods in Ayutthaya included Canon, Ford, Honda, Isuzu, Nikon, Seagate Technology, Sony, Toyota and Western Digital.
“The company now expects that the flooding of its Thailand facilities, combined with flood damage to the company’s supply chain in Thailand, will have significant impact on the company’s overall operations and its ability to meet customer demand for its products in the December quarter,” California-based Western Digital said in a statement.
“I think this is the biggest loss for Japan’s overseas investment,” Japan’s ambassador to Thailand, Seiji Kokima, was quoted as saying last week.
More than 14,000 factories have been wrecked by floods across 20 provinces, displacing more than 660,000 workers, according to the Labor Welfare Department’s director-general, Arthit Ismo.
Thailand’s main Suvarnabhumi International Airport was vulnerable because it is on Bangkok’s eastern outskirts and built on swampland.