Severe water crisis

Originally published at AsianCorrespondent on 26th November 2015

The arrival of the Loy Krathong Festival signals the beginning of the dry season and, traditionally, it is a time for Thais to pay respect to the Goddess of Water and request good fortune for the months ahead. This year many communities may well be wishing for more rain, as authorities warn that water levels are critically low and there are concerns that many regions will experience drought in the months ahead.

It’s not unusual for authorities to issue warnings about low water levels at the beginning of the dry season. This is often done in the hope that communities will more carefully manage their water usage but this year it appears there are genuine reasons for concern.

Dr. Louis Lebel, Director of USER, explains, “data matters as it is conventional for government agencies to talk up drought near the beginning of almost every dry season – but this time the data supports their claims. It was a dry wet season in the north.”

“Water storage levels in Bhumibol and Sirikit dams confirm the drought situation in 2015. The water storage in the dams is considerably lower than other years in the last decade.”

Bhumibol Dam, which at full capacity can hold 13,462 million cubic meters, is currently at just 37 percent capacity with 5,033 million cubic meters of water – down from 6,000 million cubic meters in November 2014, 7,000 million cubic meters in November 2013 and 8,500 million cubic meters in 2012.

Water levels at the Sirkit Dam, which at full capacity can hold 9,510 million cubic meters, show a similar pattern of decline over recent years. As of November 23, 2015, Sirkit Dam was at 51 percent capacity with 4,884 million cubic meters of water – down from 5,800 million cubic meters in November 2014, 6,000 million cubic meters in 2013 and 6,500 million cubic meters in 2012.

Bangkok and the Central Plain, which have no large water reservoirs of their own, rely on water supplies from other regions and two of the dams that supply water to the capital are also facing water shortages. Kwai Noi Dam in Phitsanulok is at just 44 percent capacity with 409 million cubic meters of water – down from 790 million cubic meters in 2014 and Pasak Dam in Lopburi is at 52 percent capacity with 595 million cubic meters of water – down from 800 million cubic meters in November 2014.

Severe water shortages in central Thailand could even result in Bangkok running out of tap water as almost happened earlier this year. On that occasion, cloud seeding and the arrival of tropical storm Kujira ensured Bangkok’s tap water kept running, but a continued reliance on the unpredictable nature of tropical storms is not a long term solution.

Low water levels are also taking their toll on infrastructure along canals and waterways around Bangkok. Klong Krathumlom Road, Klong Sibsong Road and Klong Sibsam Road in eastern Bangkok have all been damaged since the water in their adjacent canals dropped to very low levels. It is feared that other structures alongside these dry canals could also become unstable. Deputy Bangkok governor Jumpol Sumpaopol has since informed the media  that, “The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration ordered all 50 district offices in Bangkok and the Public Works Department to check the strength of buildings and roads, and prepare to address this problem.”

data matters as it is conventional for government agencies to talk up drought near the beginning of almost every dry season – but this time the data supports their claims.

It’s not just Bangkok and Northern Thailand that are having to prepare for water shortages in the coming months. The director of northeastern hydro power plants recently warned the public that water levels at almost all dams across the Northeast were very low and water should only be used for consumption and environmental conservation. Farmers have been warned there may not be enough water for second-season rice crops to survive and in many provinces they are under strict orders not to plant second-season crops.

While rainfall in 2015 has been lower than previous years, many areas have also experienced flooding, with 11 regions of Bangkok suffering from floods just last month. As such this impending water crisis is not simply a result of insufficient rainfall but rather an amalgamation of factors which include Thailand’s rapid urbanization, population growth, agricultural expansion, strong industrial growth and poor water governance. These factors have contributed to the over-exploitation of groundwater and increased water pollution which has impacted the quantity and quality of the country’s water sources.

These multiple factors which are contributing to Thailand’s water shortages make solving this crisis a complex task. Fortunately, Thailand is home to researchers, scientists and resource management professionals who understand the country’s challenges and possess the expertise to develop action plans that can help reduce the likelihood of future crises.

A recent report by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) emphasized the need for a multi-agency approach to water governance in Thailand. The report detailed a number of urgent measures which included  the development of clear guidelines and targets; the development of procedures that clearly define the rights and responsibilities of stakeholders; modernization of water delivery methods;  rehabilitation of water distribution structures; increased investment in research; increased awareness about the public’s right to water and their responsibility to conserve water; the inclusion of water conservation on the national curriculum and more incentives for water reuse in industry and agriculture.

Improving water governance across Thailand is now an urgent priority which requires a concerted and coordinated response from all stakeholders. Failure to act now and implement long term strategies to improve water resource management will result in a deteriorating situation and the prospect of water scarcity becoming a reality in Thailand by 2025.

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