Thai govt must manage water usage, deliver tangible results

Thai govt must manage water usage, deliver tangible results
Farmers walk in their dry rice field in Suphan Buri province, west of Bangkok, Thailand July 10, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

THE ongoing drought has prompted the government to ask farmers in the Chao Phraya River Basin to stop channelling water into their farmlands because the very limited water supply needs to be used for households only.

Without sacrifices from farmers, tap water looks set to stop coming out of faucets in many parts of the country, including Bangkok. Farmers have been told not to try and save their withering plants and let water flow past downstream areas.

The government has instructed officials and soldiers to speak to farmers and create a good understanding of the situation.

Four major dams in the Chao Phraya River Basin - Bhumibol, Sirikit, Kwai Noi and Pasak Jolasid - have now lowered their water-discharge volumes to just 18 million cubic metres a day from 28 million cubic metres. Of the amount, five million is reserved for tap water while the rest is used to keep out seawater to maintain the ecological balance.

This means no matter what happens to their properties, farmers are expected to not touch water that flows past their plots in canals or rivers.

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha said he was worried about farmers, as he understood the latest measures would affect their livelihoods.

The government estimates the measure will affect 1.48 million farms in the Chao Phraya River Basin.

So, what remedial actions have the government prepared for farmers? Let's check out what has been happening around the Chao Phraya River Basin.

In Lop Buri, agriculture officials are busily trying to make farmers understand that their sacrifices are important to the country.

In Pathum Thani, local officials are telling farmers to consider growing plants that require little water.

The Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives, meanwhile, said it would extend the repayment period for loans by a year and increase the credit line for both short- and long-term loans. It has earmarked Bt60 billion for that already.

For his part, Prayut has said he was thinking about how to take care of affected farmers. But he has made it clear that farmers should not try to heap pressure on the government and make many demands.

"If you want water for your farms, you may not have water for drinking and your daily-life activities," he said.

Rice farmers have provided much co-operation to the government in regards to the management of the country's water resources.

Late last year, when the Royal Irrigation Department asked them to skip off-season farming during the dry season, most obliged.

This year, the farming season for rice farmers started in May - the month when the country staged the Royal Ploughing Ceremony. So, as soon as May came around farmers in the Chao Phraya River Basin started ploughing fields and sowing rice seeds.

By June, 4.9 million rai (1.9 million acres) had blossomed into paddy fields. Then out of the blue the government announced that farmers should postpone the farming season to July and then again to August.

The government bluntly asked farmers who had already invested in their farms to stop using water from public canals and rivers. But whose fault is it? What compensation will farmers get?

Prayut said his heart was with farmers and he prayed for rain. But farmers can't live on prayers and sympathy. In reality, they need to make a living. They need water for their farms. They need crops to keep going.

It is true that no one can force nature to bring downpours to replenish the fast-dwindling water supplies in major dams. But it is undeniable that the government has a duty to plan and manage water resources efficiently.

What has the government done during the past year to improve the situation?

It will need to provide an explanation because relevant authorities seem to lack a clear plan to handle the country's water issues - be it droughts or floods.

When downpours arrive, floods are reported everywhere.

When downpours are absent, droughts have dragged on and upset millions of lives.

The drought crisis has been wreaking havoc in paddy fields. It is coming close to disrupting tap-water services for households and various types of businesses. Worse still, no significant rainfall is in sight.

What will the government do?

At this point, there is a real risk the dry season may drag on for longer than a year and prevent farmers from working their paddy fields until next year.

The government must do its best to turn a crisis into an opportunity.

Let's learn a lesson. Planning is an important stage of management. Plan well and make decisions based on solid information.

Review the country's water resources. Check if they are well used. For example, research revealed a few years ago that Thailand's rice-plantation area was about 58.9 million rai but only 12.2 million rai was appropriate for certain crops.

So, should the government go ahead with farm zoning to help farmers achieve better productivity and boost the country's water efficiency?

Don't blame nature for not bringing enough rainfall. It's high time the government seriously planned for water management and delivered tangible results.

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