The Story of Rain Part One: The Absent Storm

If we don’t use all the water we save up before the monsoon, then there will be nowhere for the new water to go.

By | Sat 1 Aug 2015

If you haven’t noticed, it’s not rained much this year. A small pitter-patter here, an odd downpour there; and according to reports, government statements and national statistics, Thailand’s 2015 has seen the worst drought crisis and driest rainy season in two decades.

The Chiang Mai Regional Irrigation Office 1, which covers Chiang Mai, Lamphun and Mae Hong Son, has claimed that if rainfall in the north remains nominal, the current water reserves and dams could almost completely dry up in the next few months with water levels in the Ping River already having decreased by as much as 75% from average. Reports from Bangkok claim that the entire city’s tap water could run out in less than a month if no rain falls which has sparked fear in the authorities who have reduced the water released into the Chao Phraya River Basin per day to 18 million cubic metres from 28 million cubic metres, leaving over 3.2 million rai of farmland waterless. Even Southern Thailand, which is usually bombarded by monsoon after monsoon has had its first rainmaking centre built to deal with the lack of rain for its usually wet, humid climate as well as to meet demands from the increasing population’s agricultural as well as residential expansions.

The Irrigation Office 1 releases 103,000 cubic metres of water every day to the various companies that provide tap water to Chiang Mai province alone; roughly 3 million cubic metres of water a month. Yet, according to the numbers provided by the director of Irrigation Office 1, Apiwat Poomthaisong, the amount of water needed for the city is tiny in comparison to the 300 million cubic metres of water used in irrigation of agriculture for the rainy season alone, roughly 100 million cubic metres of water a month. In fact, only three percent of all water provided is used for tap water, while a staggering 83 percent is used for agriculture. The remaining 14 percent is used to maintain ecosystems across the north.

To keep this amount of water consumption up, rain needs to fall. The region covered by the Irrigation Office 1 has two major dams, Mae Kuang Udom Thara and Mae Ngat Somboon Chon, which are now at a critical 12% capacity and 20% capacity respectively and water is also collected and provided from a water maintaining project in Mae Taeng. Ten of the 20 major northern reservoirs are at critical levels below 29%, and the remaining ten are at less than half capacity.

23 districts in the north have been declared drought areas by the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Chiang Mai Provincial Office, and official statements claim 300,000 residents are seriously affected by drought, but the real numbers are probably higher.

Thailand’s economy relies on agriculture, with over half of the 1.1 million rai of land used in agriculture in Chiang Mai, Lamphun and Mae Hong Son relying exclusively on rainwater. The other 500,000 rai rely on irrigation from the increasingly low water reserves. “Every week, 1.8 million cubic metres of water is released from the Mae Ngat Dam to provide enough water for irrigation and another 58,000 cubic metres is released a day for tap water. Irrigation water is released directly into the rivers on Fridays and Saturdays, and you can see the river swell in Chiang Mai on Sundays,” explained Apiwat.

Mae Ngat dam is probably the most important water source for the entire area according to the Irrigation Office, with over half of all water used per week coming from that one source alone. Yet with no rain filling it up, the dam could be empty in less than 25 weeks.

Mae Ngad Dam at new lows

Another concern is that the Ping River is a natural asset and is therefore accessible to all who wish to use it, meaning anyone can take the water the department so preciously releases every week for farming. Thankfully, the Irrigation Office can accurately gauge and manage how much water is being used as all farms and industrial companies that use the river’s water must declare how much they will use and when. The Ping River then flows down through Lamphun, which then has to deal not only with lower water levels, but increasingly dirty water, much of it waste from us here in Chiang Mai. Fish farmers downstream from our city are complaining that their fish are being poisoned after the waste water let out into the Ping River is allowed to flow through their farms undiluted, as the Irrigation Office is currently unable to expend water in diluting the pollutants at the sources. The reaming water left in the Ping River flows south and eventually helps fill the Bhumibol Dam in Tak, the country’s largest dam, serving most of the central plains and the capital city. For comparison, the Bhumibol Dam releases a staggering 15 million cubic metres of water a day, which is the same amount of tap water that the whole of Chiang Mai uses in three months.

Unlike most rice growing countries, Thailand has three harvests a year in the central plains, one in the monsoon season when rainfall provides suitable irrigation to the water-heavy conditions rice needs to grow, and two dry season crops between November and March. Thankfully however, along with the monsoon crop, the north of Thailand conducts only one dry season harvest in an attempt at preserving water and stopping the soils from becoming too acidic due to over farming. Regardless, over 80 percent of all the crops rely entirely on water supplied from reservoirs and dams. Counting for around 28 percent of annual rice production, the dry season crop needs a lot of water. “It’s just the way we farm here,” replies Apiwat, after being asked if it would be better to return to a single, more natural, rainy season harvest, he says, “it’s far too engrained into the culture; nobody will stop now.”

Simply put, this means that water collected in the rainy season not only feeds the rice and the people in the rainy season, but must also feed the rice and the people all year round, and when the water runs out, everyone suffers. If not enough rain falls this year, next year’s water reserves will become even lower, and we could see the situation spiral out of control without proper management.

Thailand also suffers from a drought-flood system. During the dry season, drought is almost inevitable in certain areas, and without adequate dam and weir management, floods can quickly destroy crops and invade cities in a number of days after a heavy rain fall. For this reason, Apiwat explained that dams need to be close to empty around late April to prepare for the vast amounts of water expected during the rainy season. “It is a cycle,” he said. “If we don’t use all the water we save up before the monsoon, then there will be nowhere for the new water to go. Dams could break or cities and fields could flood uncontrollably.”

In anticipation of maintaining and managing this year’s dwindling water levels, the government had asked farmers to refrain from planting rice from October last year in an attempt at halting the dry season rice production for a year. This year’s drought was somewhat predicted due to last year’s lower than average rainfall. According to Apiwat, around 60% of farmers in the north complied, however contrasting satellite imagery taken in January 2015 by the United States Department of Agriculture shows that only 25 to 30 percent of the land used for dry season rice had not been planted.

Given all these facts, it is clear how serious the situation is, yet farmers seem to largely ignore the government’s warnings, be it for need or greed, and continue to grow their rice uncontested. For such a national crisis, which could leave thousands without water, to rely on the goodwill of farmers to not plant much needed crops in order to serve the greater good, and with no incentives to do so, does not appear to be a realistic solution. Neither does Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s off-the-cuff suggestion in July that farmers grow herbs such as velvet beans that cure impotency in men, as they require less water and are more profitable.

Yet despite these worrying figures, Apiwat still remains confident. “The weather is a cycle of more than one year,” he said. “Every four to five years it rains more…and then it rains less. This is certainly not the worst drought the north has seen in recorded history. By far.” He also accuses the public and the media of over exaggerating the situation despite the alarming statistics he provided, claiming the rain will come soon and all will be well. “Society is stuck behind a computer screen,” he said. “Most people read something and just believe it and don’t even bother to look and study what the facts say and what the truth actually is. When it floods in Chiang Mai, they say it’s entirely our fault because it’s sunny outside. What they don’t realise is the flood water has come from miles away and has nothing to do with rain on the city itself.”

Regardless of opinions, one fact cannot be argued against; the water reserves are nearing critical. It could, and most likely will, be that by the time this magazine is printed, two or three monsoon storms have swept past the dehydrated north, bringing us back to life with much needed H2O…and making our second part of this article next month rather redundant. Here’s to hoping.

As rain is a natural resource, there isn’t much we can do about it on a day to day basis. A lot depends on wind directions, cold fronts, low fronts and environmental changes both in the atmosphere and on the ground. Sure, if there was less deforestation, maybe more clouds could form, but the damage has already been done, and continues to be done.

In increased efforts to get the water flowing again, the government is trying all they can to encourage rain. There is one department that claims to be a serious player when it comes to hydrating the country. The Department of Royal Rainmaking and Agricultural Aviation, which will be the subject of part two of this story in September.

This much revered department founded in response to research conducted by His Majesty King Bhumipol, works tirelessly to encourage the skies to open and rain on our thirsty land. According to Apiwat, it seems to be working. He claims that “you can really see the impact of their valuable work,” which must mean something is being done right. Yet after talking with the director of the Northern Royal Rainmaking Department, recent environmental changes such as pollution and increased average temperatures are leading to several problems.

In the meanwhile, by the time you read the article, we hope that the rains have come, allowing our thirsty land to soak up all the water, filling our rivers, reservoirs and farms with much needed Adam’s ale. And if not, we may need to arrange another rocket festival to re-remind the skies to change season again.

Read The Story of Rain Part Two here.