Keeping Us All Watered: Meet the Director of the Chiang Mai Irrigation Department

In fact, newspapers headlines had been screeching increasingly panicked headlines for weeks, “Ping River Dried Up!”

By | Tue 1 Mar 2016

As I drove through the 700 Year Stadium and past the manned barrier into the Chiang MaiIrrigation Office, I was grimly amused at how the terrain appeared to become more parched, the watered gardens of the sports ground replaced by bare trees and brown leaves, struggling to survive on dusty Indian red soil. Entering the cool offices of Jansark Limpiti, Director of Chiang Mai Irrigation Office, I glanced out of his window at the nearly-empty reservoir with just a few tiny puddles left at its bottom.

Jansark Limpiti, Director of Chiang Mai Irrigation Office

I’d been trying to get this interview for months, and with winter finally over, along with any meaningful glimpses of Doi Suthep Mountain, it couldn’t have been better timed: we haven’t had rain since the fortunate late January downpour, this was the second year in a row with predicted drought, temperatures were rising and the monsoon season is still months away. In fact, newspapers headlines had been screeching increasingly panicked headlines for weeks, “Ping River Dried Up!”, “Chiang Mai with Only Three Months of Water Left”, “2016 Drought; Fights Already Erupting for Water in Chiang Mai”, “Ping, Wang, Yom and Nan — All Dry”. Things were dire, and I had to find out for myself how critical.

Most likely due to having sat down with many reporters of late, Jansark immediately took control of the interview, “before we talk about the situation, I think you need to understand the structure,” he said, as we waited for his laptop to boot up.

“Let’s talk management,” he started, beginning a massive PowerPoint presentation filled with information updated half an hour before my arrival. “This department maintains, we don’t build. We oversee small to medium sized reservoirs (there are only two large sized ones in Chiang Mai: Mae Ngad and Mae Kuang Dams both of which are run by their own offices). There are 12 medium sized reservoirs (1 million — 100 million cubic metres, or CBM) and 115 small ones (100,000 to a million CBM) which we manage. But other organisations are also involved such as the Department of Groundwater Resources, Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Department of Fisheries, Royal Irrigation Department, Office of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation and all the governing bodies from the governor down to the village headman. We try our best to liaise with them all to manage water resources. Our office covers an area of 25 districts in Chiang Mai or around 12.5 million rai with an irrigated area of just over 350,000 rai. We then have to report to the regional office.”

“And I’m not even talking about having to work with smaller departments for situations such as getting water trucks, pumps, sandbags or labour when needed.”

In order to address a crisis, Jansark explains, you need to understand who and what is affected. In the past emails were used for updates, but with the advent ofLine chat, Jansark says that he receives real time updates from a huge network of people such as farmers’ co-ops or hospitals reporting outbreaks of diseases. Once the problem has been identified then he needs to find responsible parties who may have caused it, or who are addressing it to find out what resources are needed in order to help them.

“It could be that a school in a remote area no longer has access to water and the children are suffering from dysentery,” he expands. “I will then have to mobilise the village head, the public health and the school district, often using leverage and strong-arm tactics to get them to work together, since I am not their boss and have no power to tell them what to do. It is only when the situation is serious that we ask the governor to step in.”

We scroll through the PowerPoint, he shows me where all 73 fire trucks in the province are, how many livestock live in each village, what is forestry or agricultural in any given area, that the medium sized reservoirs are now filled to just 17.5% of their capacity, that the small ones are at 21.5%, and that rainfall has dropped 35% from last year. He then goes on to say that this year’s drought is the worst in 30 years, turning his team of 20 into data analysts, constantly correlating and making sense of information in order liaise with other authorities to solve problems as they arise.

“Here,” he pointed. “Mae Ngad Dam has 60 million CBM today. It’s capacity is 265 million. This time last year we had 170 million. And at Mae Kuang Dam, which can store up to 263 million, there is just 31 million CBM left, down from last year’s 50 million. Last year we all survived thanks to Mae Ngad Dam managing to release 3.2 million CBM per week to feed downstream Chiang Mai.”

This year he calculated that we need to ration this number down to 1.7 million per week if we are to have enough water to last us until 21st May.

What happens after the 21st of May, I asked in dismay? “Fortunately the January rains helped so much, contributing 3.4 million CBM to the Mae Ngad reserves that we didn’t have to release any water for two weeks, so our water will now last until the 6th of June. The Meteorological Department seems to think that rain will definitely come before then, but if not, then yes, there will be quite a crisis. We will have to look at grounds water and other resources.”

“But don’t worry about survival,” he reassured me, at my stricken face. “Agriculture takes up 65% ofconsumption, consumers only use 15%. Other usages include animal husbandry, industry and a range of environmental maintenance projects. So there are a few barriers to go through before we suffer from thirst.”

I asked him how they came to such decisions about water releases and who gets to have how much water when.

“We do it on a provincial level, but the regional office makes the final say on larger matters. Here is an example. It takes 30 hours for the water to reach Pa Daed Weir in the city from Mae Ngad,” he explained. “But first, Mae Ngad feeds directly into 200,000 rai of agriculture land in its vicinity as well as nourishes 15,000 people. They usually receive 100 million CBM per year. This year we have had to work hard to negotiate with them to reduce the number down to just 25 million. To achieve this, they can’t grow rice. So I had to talk to the labour department to find them jobs in the city and our various departments have hired on many people too. We started all these negotiations in November last year, anticipating this drought. So, out of the 60 million CBM we have in Mae Ngad, we are now down to only 35 million. That is how we calculated the 1.7 million a week. Oh, after the one million for Songkran of course.”

I have been unable to verify this as I am not a constitution expert, but Jansark claimed that it was enshrined in the constitution that the government had to provide water for Songkran and Loy Krathong, he has therefore set aside 1 million CBM for the occasion.

“The problem wasn’t solved just like that though,” he continued. “Once the water reaches the new Pa Daed Weir, there is 3.7 million stored upstream. But there are eight further weirs along the Ping south ofcity all the way to Doi Tao District, but we only manage a couple of them, the others are controlled by local authorities. So when we release our 1.7 million each Monday we allow the water to fill up the southernmost weir first, slowly working its way up river towards the city. Each sub-district is told in advance when they will be able to access water, and they have to prepare themselves accordingly.”

“There was one weir in Tha Mako, Hang Dong District, where they refused to comply with our plan and sucked all the water out so that those downstream had no water supply. This became a crisis when the Japanese Consul got upset and threatened to move the Lamphun Industrial Estate (downstream from Tha Mako) elsewhere. I had tried to talk to them, but they wouldn’t even answer my calls. I had to find a bypass which took the water 14 kilometres around the weir to supply those downstream. But we had to call the governor in as he had to send 35 soldiers to be stationed along the water to protect it. After we boycotted the area they finally agreed to talk. We then learned that the waterhad been channelled off to sustain a fish farm, so we had to ask the Department of Fisheries to come help us find a solution. Again, they didn’t think it was their business, but the governor had to order them to come and they helped by moving the fish from the farm to the weir itself, which solved everyone’s problems. We even had to buy another lock to put over the first lock, making sure that the local authorities didn’t come and sabotage things at night. It took three weeks to finally sort this out.”

While Mae Ngad is the city’s lifeblood, Mae Kuang Dam also has a large role to play in keeping us watered, currently releasing 1 million CBM per week to supply Sansai, Doi Saket and Sankampaeng.

There were too many charts to study, maps to scrutinise and numbers to crunch and soon I was leading him back to more layman’s terms, asking about his levels of satisfaction with the work being done this year.

“This crisis, while horrible, has been excellent in showing us that our system is really good. In times of crisis we are able to pool our resources, work together and have a clear chain of command to set responsibilities and priorities. We are effective. This was the year that showed us that together we can solve very serious problems. Many people made sacrifices,many egos were set aside and there was a lot of cooperation. I find that my job becomes more about negotiation than anything. While agriculture is crucial, I had to balance that with tourism. Chiang Mai city uses 1 million CBM per week, of which 90% is consumption. We can’t reduce this because the city’s economy needs to be robust, not just to get the tourist dollars, but to support the out of work farmers in jobs and trading opportunities. We took a moment to gaze back out at the nearly empty reservoir just outside his office. “That can contain 1.2 million, you know, but it is now under 300,000,” he said. “That is the reservoir from where the helicopters get their water to combat fire. It’s pretty critical.”

As I closed my notebook and asked permission to tour the reservoir he perked up, “once this crisis is over we are going to focus on preparing for the next decade. This year has shown us our capabilities, we aren’t going to be thinking year on year anymore, but looking far in advance. We now have not only the urgency but the resources to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”