With much of Thailand suffering the worst drought in 24 years, the water supply for Bangkok and other urban populations is dropping to critical levels, officials warn.
The reservoirs of four dams along the Chaophraya, the nation’s largest river that feeds the central plains and passes through the Thai capital, could run out of water by July unless significant rainfall comes during the upcoming wet season and people conserve water, according to officials.
The total capacity of the four dams – Bhumibol, Sirikit, Pasak Cholasit and Kwai Noi – has fallen to 37 percent of their combined capacity, but only 2.56 billion cubic meters of water reserved for irrigation, drinking and other uses will last until July based on the dams’ current effluent rate, Prutipong Tasanchaleekul, a director of an irrigation office in the suburban Bangkok district of Rangsit, told BenarNews.
Yet he remains optimistic that rainfall will help raise reservoir levels during the traditional rainy season, which starts in July.
“We still have El Niño, and late July should show a sign of La Niña, which is also a transition from dry season to rainy season,” he said, referring to the warm weather phenomenon of El Niño which is expected to give way to cooler temperatures during a counter-phenomenon known as La Niña.
“There should be rain, rain fall. There will be peak of rain fall in the five-year span of La Niña,” Prutipong predicted during a phone interview.
As a measure for cutting down on water consumption, officials in Bangkok earlier this month announced a curfew during Thailand’s upcoming water festival and celebration of Songkran, the Thai new year, according to reports. Last month, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha ordered rice farmers to reduce their output in order to save water. He also called on Thais in general to conserve water such as by taking shorter showers.
“[W]e need all parties to campaign to save water for urban and capital consumption and no more off-season rice cultivation,” Prutipong said.
Worst drought since 1992
At the Bhumibol dam in Tak province, the water supply has already dropped to 682 million cubic meters, or 7 percent of its full reserve capacity, Rakchart Lekboonpetch, an engineer who works at the facility, told BenarNews.
The reservoir at the dam is at its lowest level since 1992, said Satit Saikaew, another engineer at Bhumbol.
The shortage resulted from a miscalculation in 2012 when the dam, the nation’s second largest reservoir, released 5 billion cubic meters of water to fulfill a surge in rice farming, which was buoyed at the time by a controversial rice mortgage scheme implemented by the government of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The former PM is now facing charges related to corruption in that scheme.
“It was a miscalculation in 2012. Some 5 billion cubic meters of water was dispensed to farmers as they enjoyed good price rices, but we did not have water to replenish the dam,” Satit told BenarNews.
Isaan farmers hit hard
In irrigated zones, farmers may cultivate their paddies three times a year. Thailand has some 22 million acres of paddy fields, which yielded 23 million tons of rice last year. Some 6 million acres are useable for off-season cropping.
But this year, water in rivers in northern Thailand that are tributaries of the Chaophrya have partially or completely dried up.
In Thailand’s most impoverished northeastern region, known as Isaan among locals, the severe drought led to a sharp drop in output for small-scale rice farmer Siri Ekchote.
As a result of last year’s meager rainfall between June and August, his yield of jasmine rice and sticky rice sank from 360 to 160 sacks.
“If there is no rain after Songkran, we villagers won’t have water to feed our cattle and we cannot grow any crop,” he told BenarNews.
China controls water
Thailand’s northeast, which has been hit hardest by the drought, borders the Mekong River from which water has been harnessed for dry season farming.
But the water supply from the Mekong has been impeded by five dams built by China upriver since 2003. Now, a project by Laos to build a dam along the river could add to irrigation woes in Thailand.
In recent days, China started to release water from its Jinghong Dam along the Mekong. Officials in Thailand’s Nongkhai province started harnessing water from the river on March 15.
And during a meeting in Sanya, China, between Chinese officials and leaders of five Southeast Asian countries, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth on Wednesday called for “constructive” cooperation states that use the Mekong, the creation of a water-management plan that would benefit all of them, and the establishment of a center that would allow those countries to share information about the their use of the river, the Bangkok Post reported.