Thai govt seeks solutions to torrid drought

A series of measures will be adopted to ensure that the country has enough water resources at least until April next year, including a provision for 500 groundwater wells in drought-hit provinces.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha yesterday chaired a meeting of economic ministers that also approved four urgent measures to cope with the drought.

These measures include a further delay in the rice crop to July or August, a switch to crops that consume less water, a switch to multiple crops and a debt payment suspension for farmers in affected areas.

By the middle of July, 500 additional groundwater wells are expected to be operational in drought-hit provinces, while the Irrigation Department will lessen the release of fresh water for farmland by five million cubic metres per day to save inventory.

About 3.44 million rai of farmland in the central and other regions would be affected, but there would be some relief from groundwater supply.

The focus is on rice farmers in 22 provinces near the Chao Phraya River basin.

For example, an area of around 850,000 rai that has already started off-season farming is expected to have a shortage of water due to the El Nino phenomenon following a lack of rainfall in the central region.

A budget of Bt84 million (S$3 million) is earmarked for the groundwater project covering equipment and manpower, including the 2,000 local farmers asked to delay their off-season farming to the beginning of July, along with the procurements of 80 water pumps and 60 well-drilling machines.

"What we have to do first is to save the rice and the farmers. We cannot let them die," said Prayut, adding that the money for the 500 wells would be allocated from the 2016 fiscal budget.

The government earlier urged rice farmers to delay their off-season farming to the beginning of July instead of June because of the shortage of water.

Overall, there is around 7.45 million rai of rice farmland near the Chao Phraya River basin, of which around 3.44 million started farming at the beginning of June - but the amount of water left in major irrigation dams is not enough to support them all.

The remaining 3.45 million rai will have to wait until the rainwater comes.

Around 850,000 rai is expected to face a shortage of water because it is an area higher than sea level when compared to areas next to the river or other areas closer to the dams in the central region.

The artesian wells will be built near areas where water is still expected to be in short supply and they could service only around 100,000-130,000 rai.

As a result, farmers in the areas will be encouraged to grow other crops that require less water, such as corn and green peas.

Petipong Pungbun Na Ayudhya, Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, said the corn could be sold to feed domesticated animals. The green-peas could be sold to retail and export operators who claim there is currently a demand for around 100,000 tonnes of green peas. The ministry has a supply of seeds that farmers could purchase.

"The crop switch programme is expected to be finalised in two weeks when the rain is expected to fall. The farmers will then know what to do this season," he said.

Interior Minister General Anupong Paojinda has reassured that the water shortage will not affect supplies for consumption and other purposes.

The Thai Meteorological Department expects the shortage of rain to gradually recover from around a deficit of 18-20 per cent in July, to 10 and 8 per cent in August and September respectively - before returning to the normal rainfall average in October.