A national network of rice farmers has urged the government to pay compensation to farmers whose paddies have been damaged by the sharp cut in water supply to the agriculture sector.
Ubonsak Bualuang-ngam, chairman of the Rice Committee of National Farmers' Council, said the compensation sought by the grouping's members is about Bt3,000 (S$100)-Bt4,000 per rai - the amount the farmers have already invested in their farmland before the water supply was cut off yesterday.
"We submitted letters to the government twice, but there has been no response so far. Such a compensation would be necessary because we followed the government's advice by starting the annual rice crop on May 1.
"Many farmers borrowed money to buy seeds and fertilisers for their crop. I would like to ask whose fault is it - the government's or the farmers?
"We're not threatening the government but if the hardship of indebted farmers worsens, they will have no alternative but to take to the streets," he said.
The sharp cut in water discharge for farming, which started yesterday, will hit a total of 1.4 million rai of paddy fields in the Central region. The prolonged drought will lop off an estimated 3-4 percentage points off the agriculture sector's contribution to gross domestic product.
The farm sector's share in Thailand's overall GDP is 8-9 per cent.
"The agricultural sector will face negative growth this year, as production of many crops is low, prices of many commodities remain low and rice growing is limited due to the drought," said Lersak Rewtarkulpaiboon, secretary-general of the Agricultural Economics Office under the Agriculture Ministry.
The hardest hit will be the farming sector, while other businesses are still going strong this year, like those in the livestock, seafood and forestry industries.
Meanwhile, soldiers and local authorities yesterday stood guard at pumping stations in several provinces to make sure local farmers did not divert water to their lands.
Royal Irrigation Department deputy director Suthep Noipairoj said 1.4 million rai of farmland in the Chao Phraya River basin was hit out of a total 4.9 million rai.
"These areas will suffer during the next 20 days before there are more seasonal rains, which should minimise the damage," Suthep said.
At the local level, Phitsanulok Irrigation Project director Bandit Inta said 120,000 rai of paddy field are at risk of damage from the drought and will have to rely on rains for irrigation, as there is no water supply for agriculture anymore.
"The overall paddy fields in the irrigation zone in Phitsanulok are around 700,000 rai, and most of them have already harvested. The remaining 120,000 rai will have to rely solely on rains and they may escape damage if the rains arrive," Bandit said.
The director of Chai Nat Provincial Agriculture Office, Theerasak Chumnguen, revealed that around 100,000 rai of paddy fields in the province are vulnerable to suffer from water shortage of the overall 770,380 rai.
Theerasak stated that even plantations that consume less water such as sugar cane and cassava are suffering damage due to the drought.
"We are trying to help the farmers by digging 93 new wells to provide alternative sources of water. However, currently only 27 wells are functional," he revealed.
Suthep said from now on the Royal Irrigation Department and related agencies have to secure the understanding of farmers about water usage and the 335 water pumping stations in the Chao Phraya River basin have to be closely monitored to restrict water usage in the agricultural sector. Water usage priority will be given for domestic usage and to sustain the ecology.
Bandit said the authorities have to ensure that the new water distribution plan will ensure water for domestic use. He also said the government has to save as much water as it can, because the period for collecting water in the dams is short and it is still unclear how much rainfall will be received until the monsoon season ends in November.
"If there is less rain, we will have to face a tough drought situation again next year," he added.
In order to reduce the water discharge, Suthep Lertsrimongkol, director-general of the Sirikit Dam, announced that 16 million cubic centimetres of water were released yesterday while the level of water discharged will be reduced by a million cubic metres each day until next Tuesday.
"With that measure, the volume of water released will be minimised to 11 million cubic metres according to the government's plan, while the remaining water amount stands at 298 million cubic metres," Suthep said.
Bhumibol Dam director Nattawut Jaemjang revealed that the daily decrease of 1 million cubic metres of water discharged will be maintained until Saturday. After that the water will be released at 5 million cubic metres per day until further notice, which he assured would be adequate for domestic consumption.