AS THE rainy season reaches its climax across Thailand, floodwaters from the kingdom’s northern region have begun inundating its central provinces. The Chao Phraya River is said to be on the verge of flooding areas of Bangkok, in what looks set to be the worst flood disaster the capital has seen since 2011.
It may be of little surprise that Thailand’s low-lying capital is under threat of flooding, but that this is happening just months after the country recovered from its worst drought in 24 years indicates the precariousness of Thailand’s water resource management.
While residents in vulnerable areas now brace themselves for floodwaters, there is every chance that within a few months, farmers will be forced to forego planting rice crops and Bangkok residents will be warned to conserve resources to avoid tap water shortages.
This cycle of flooding and drought which has become a common feature of life in Thailand can be found across much of South and Southeast Asia. For countries across these regions, water resource management is a serious concern that requires urgent improvement through investment, planning, data collection, data analysis and cooperation.
In April 2016, Thailand’s dams were at critically low levels, with drought declared in 30 of Thailand’s 77 provinces. The arrival of Tropical Cyclone ‘Dianmu’ in mid-August, eventually provided enough rain to begin replenishing water supplies in the country’s dams but, despite substantial rain over the past few months, water levels in many of Thailand’s dams remained low.
In early September, the Department of Royal Rain-making and Agricultural Aviation made plans to increase rain-making operations in order to raise water levels in the country’s four major dams. The arrival of topical storm Rai, on Sept 13 in Northeastern Thailand, brought torrential rainfall and extensive flooding across the North and Northeast, with the meteorological department issuing flood warnings for 34 provinces.
As the rivers in these regions swelled and floodwaters traveled downstream, central provinces began to flood. Floodwaters are now on the verge of Bangkok, and with more heavy rain forecast over the coming days, the city’s residents have been told to prepare themselves for flooding.
This year’s tropical storms, ‘Dianmu’ and ‘Rai’, have increased water levels in Thailand’s dams, which currently hold significantly higher levels of water than they did at this time last year. While this indicates that the country will be better equipped to provide water through the 2016-2017 dry season, there is still concern as water levels in fifteen of Thailand’s dams remain at below 50 percent.
Breaking Thailand’s cycle of flooding and drought was the topic of the Sustainable Water Management Forum 2016, which took place in Bangkok earlier this year. The event, which was organised by Utokapat Foundation under the Royal Patronage of His Majesty the King, was attended by water management specialists from countries which had successfully overcome serious water management challenges such as the Netherlands, Israel and Singapore.
At the forum, Sumet Tantivejkul, Utokapat Foundation chairman, highlighted Thailand’s current mismanagement of water resources, saying: “In Thailand, we receive around 754,000 million cubic metres of rain per year. That is more than enough for the annual water demand of around 100,000 million cubic metres…. However, only 5.7 percent of rainfall, 70,370 million cubic metres, empties into the reservoirs.”
The situation had been preciously emphasised by Thanasak Watanathana, governor of the Metropolitan Waterworks Authority during an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation. According to Thanasak, in Thailand, there are, “floods every year, and we waste that water by letting it out to the sea. So how can we save some of that water to solve the problems during the dry season? They are releasing so much rainwater into the sea. It’s more than we have in our entire dam system. Even if we could save 10 percent of it, it would be a lot”.
The need for more small water reservoirs to reduce the loss of precipitation in Thailand’s Northeast, which receives the lowest precipitation levels, and the Central Plain, which has no large water reservoirs and relies entirely on water from the country’s lower Northern region, was discussed at the Sustainable Water Management Forum.
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During the forum, international water management experts shared their experiences and advice with the Thai officials responsible for managing the country’s natural resources. Tjitte Nauta, an expert in integrated water management, emphasized the need for the Thai government to be more proactive on water management with improved research and planning to implement, “a well-studied and integrated approach”.
Conclusions drawn from the forum reinforce the findings of other intentional organizations, which call for countries to collect detailed rainfall records and accurate water management data to better inform decision-making.
Bambang Susantono, the Asian Development Bank’s vice-president of Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, has championed the benefits of combing physical measurements on the ground with satellite technology to gather more accurate information on rainfall, and groundwater levels in order to map water stocks and water usage. This data is essential for governments to gain a better account of water resources, prepare for droughts and floods, and help inform decision making on the construction of irrigation systems, dams, and embankments.
Managing Thailand’s floodwaters while ensuring the country’s residents and the agriculture sector, which accounts for 75 percent of Thailand’s consumption, have sufficient access to year-round water supplies, is a national challenge which requires a committed, coordinated response.
Considerable improvements to data collection, data analysis and water resource management is necessary to break out of this current cycle of flooding and drought and ensure that Thailand is no longer reliant on tropical storms to replenish water supplies on an annual basis.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent