A DROP AT A TIME

Thailand 2017 | AGRICULTURE | FOCUS: WATER SHORTAGE

In 2016, many Thai's across the Kingdom will be looking out for weather forecasts—rather than economic ones—as the key indicator for the country's economic sustainability. Water is becoming an increasingly precious global commodity as populations and temperatures increase.

With the country experiencing its most severe water shortage in two decades, all eyes are on the government as it takes mother nature head-on in a bid to ensure water security for its population and thirsty economy. In March 2016, the Director-General of the Royal Irrigation Department, Suthep Noipairoj announced that "this year sees the lowest irrigation water level since 1994," and it was revealed that 14 of 77 provinces were facing drought, while a further 31 others were at risk. With rainfall across the country 46% lower than normal throughout 2015, the issue of storing and slowly releasing resources throughout the dry season has seldom been greater.

According to Thailand's Board of Investment (BOI), the government has constructed some 3,000 dams over the years, with several large dams (Kiew Lom, Mae Ngat, Mae Kuang, Mae Chang, Thap Salao and Kra Sieo) built over the past two decades to help store the monsoon flows. The vast focus of these efforts has been directed towards conserving water in the vast Chao Phraya basin—Thailand's breadbasket.

Stretching across the northwest of the country, the area has largely been served by two major constructs—the Bhumibol and Sirikit dams—which together control the runoff from 22% of the area of the entire basin. However, as shown by the Thailand Integrated Water Resource Management program, which was initiated directly by His Majesty the King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1998 and designed to broadcast water levels in each of Thailand's major dams in real time, both Bhumibol and Sikrit are running alarmingly dry. As of April 2016, the Bhumibol and Sirikit dams are currently operating at 32% and 42% capacity respectively. Moreover, with the region's dry season about to enter full-swing, the government is starting to count the cost the water shortage could have on Thailand's vital agricultural sector, and has already begun to implement solutions to help ease the impact.

Contributing some 12% to GDP in 2015, Thailand's agriculture sector employs over 30% of the local labor force, yet consumes a whopping 65% of the country's overall water usage. Put in perspective—that is compared to 0.5% of water used by Thailand's entire tourism sector. Above all, reserves are being drained by rice cultivation—where Thailand ranks among the top exporters in the world. According to recent forecasts, the water shortage in 2016 could shave between 0.5 and 0.8% off Thailand's GDP growth, with its rice production expected to slump almost 30% to 25 million tons.

As such, the government has put in place a number of measures to help soften the blow and, temporarily at least, reform the industry. In 2015, they encouraged farmers to delay their winter rice crop—which is generally cultivated through irrigation rather than rainfall—until August. This year, the government has rolled out measures worth $660 million, including supporting farmers to grow less water-intensive crops such as fruit trees, sugarcane or peas, or encouraging the Bank of Agriculture (BAAC) to finance farmers who need to grow alternative crops.

While 2016 will be the fourth consecutive year of sub-normal rainfall level, every cloud has a silver lining. A huge opportunity is presenting itself for fresh, innovative water-management solutions, while Thailand's agricultural output is set to become a more diverse basket.