Thailand hopes industrial estates swamped in its worst floods in half a century can be up and running within three months, the prime minister said on Monday, as the danger of central Bangkok being inundated appeared finally to have passed.
Nearly 400 people have been killed in months of floods that have disrupted the lives of more than 2 million, economic growth has been set back and global supply chains for Thai-made computer and auto parts thrown into disarray.
But inner Bangkok, protected by a network of dikes and sandbag walls, appeared to have escaped the deluge with peak tides on the Chao Phraya river due to pass on Monday, water levels falling upstream and clear weather setting in.
While the centre of the capital remained dry with business mostly as usual, neighbourhoods on the wrong side of the protective ring, especially to the north and west, and provinces to the north, have been swamped by deep, fetid flows.
Anger is rising in hard-hit communities. Tension boiled over into skirmishes with police in some areas as villagers tried to pull down flood barriers keeping water high in their communities but protecting the capital.
The disaster has been the first big test for the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a political novice who took over this year after an election that many Thais hoped would heal deep divisions.
Saving Bangkok from a ruinous flood would be an important victory. The city's 12 million people account for 41 percent of Thailand's gross domestic product.
Another economically vital region is just north of Bangkok, in particular Pathum Thani and Ayutthaya provinces, which have been largely inundated for weeks.
Seven industrial estates that have sprung up over the last two decades on what used to be the central plain's rice fields have been overcome by the vast volumes of water.
Yingluck said it should take three months to rehabilitate the estates, where some foreign investors have built production hubs.
We expect after the water recedes the industrial estates will recover within three months if we can release the water and recover the machinery quickly, Yingluck told reporters.
A resident of Pathum Thani province said the water had fallen for the first time and was down about 5 cm (2 inches) on Monday, but was still nearly 1.5 metres (5 feet) deep.
Thailand is the second-largest exporter of computer hard drives and global prices are rising because of a flood-related shortage of major components used in personal computers.
Thailand is also Southeast Asia's main auto-parts maker and Japan's Honda Motor Co said car production could be difficult in the second half of its business year ending in March. Its Ayutthaya plant has suspended work indefinitely.
Yingluck said she had assured Japanese investors of steps to prevent a repeat of disaster from the annual rainy season.
They are still confident to invest in Thailand but we have to invest in a long-term flood-protection plan, she said.
Energy Minister Pichai Naripthaphan said the government expected a recovery plan would cost up to 900 billion baht ($30 billion), including 800 billion baht for an overhaul of the water-management system and 100 billion for the rehabilitation of industrial estates.
Every crisis has an opportunity. We are studying how to rebuild the country's economy and competitiveness. We have studied models from several countries, Pichai told Reuters. Solving the flood crisis is the main issue.
Yingluck said that huge sum had yet to be finalised.
The president of South Korea's Samsung Electronics said at the weekend he expected the floods to hit the computer memory chip market further by hurting PC production until the first quarter of next year.
Honda said the interruption at its Thai plant was expected to disrupt car production in Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan, where it uses Thai parts.
TOURISTS STAY AWAY
The Bank of Thailand has nearly halved its projection of economic growth this year to 2.6 percent from July's 4.1 percent estimate, and said the economy -- Southeast Asia's second largest -- would shrink by 1.9 percent in the December quarter from the previous three months due to the floods.
Foreign tourist arrivals in the fourth quarter were expected to drop as much as 20 percent, meaning losses of up to 30 billion baht, said Kongkrit Hirankij, president of the Federation of the Thai Tourism Industry.
The floods submerged four million acres (1.6 million ha), an area roughly the size of Kuwait, and destroyed 25 percent of the main rice crop in the world's largest rice exporter.
The deluge was caused in part by unusually heavy monsoon rain falling on a low-lying region, but the weather has been largely clear for a week as the cooler dry season begins.
But the danger is far from over with the run-off still moving and swamping neighbourhoods as fears of disease grow.
People living in Thonburi, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya, have been struggling in waist-deep water for days, as have those in suburbs and provinces to the north of Bangkok.
About 30 riot police were deployed in an area of Pathum Thani to maintain order after residents destroyed a barrier.
Yingluck assured victims in a Facebook message that they would be taken care of.
As well as a big risk of diarrhoea and mosquito-borne diseases, skin infections are a major problem and in some areas,
crocodiles have escaped from flooded farms and snakes searching for dry land have slithered into homes.
(Additional reporting by Khettiya Jittapong, Bazuki Muhammad in BANGKOK and Chang-Ran Kim in TOKYO; Editing by Ron Popeski)