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Between thirst and drowning

We need a fresh approach to water management if Thailand is to escape alternating drought and flooding

With monsoon storms soaking Thailand, many will have already forgotten the long spell of drought suffered in much of the country earlier this year. Anxiety is now focused on whether we can avoid the scale of flooding we saw in 2011, when many provinces were inundated for months. That flooding was blamed on poor management of water resources, since the level in reservoirs in the North hadn't been lowered sufficiently to soak up the monsoon influx. By the time authorities realised there was a problem it was too late, and they were forced to release huge volumes of water through dams. As the water surged to the sea, most provinces downstream, from Nakhon Sawan in the upper central region to Samut Prakan at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, were heavily flooded.

Despite its many dams and reservoirs and plentiful rainfall during the May-October wet season, Thailand suffers alternating extremes of drought and flood. Loosely speaking, we store up rainwater during the five-month wet season to use during the remaining seven "dry" months. This strategy is designed to even out the extremes, but instead, poor management of water resources is leaving us at the mercy of Mother Nature.

Unlike countries with limited water supplies, Thailand seems to have taken its resource for granted. However, increasingly erratic climate patterns and constantly increasing demand for water by agriculture, industry and households means we now need to manage this resource more efficiently to avoid drought. Pramote Maiklad, former director-general of the Royal Irrigation Department and an expert on water resources, forecasts that climate change will bring a long period of drought in many areas of Thailand this year and next.

Politicians and bureaucrats tend to "think big", preferring large projects rather than small ones. Some are motivated by the promise of greater personal financial gain. Water mega-projects such as new dams and river extensions often face opposition from residents and environmentalist groups. Such was the case for the ousted government's Bt350-billion water-management programme initiated after the 2011 flood. Public hearings for the largest projects saw protests across the country. Citizens feared their livelihoods would be damaged, if not ruined.

The truth is that we already have many large dams and reservoirs, in all regions. Rather than building more, what is needed is more efficient management of what exists. For example, the number of harvests in each rice-growing season could be reduced from four to one or two. Farmers whose land isn't irrigated should be encouraged to grow crops that use less water than rice in the dry season.

Instead of "thinking big", we could build small reservoirs in rural areas for local consumption and irrigation. We could also explore initiatives like Tokyo's Sky Water Harvesting projects, where more than 1,000 high-rise buildings store rainwater in underground tanks for the dry season. The system at the Tokyo Sky Tree, the world's tallest broadcast tower, holds 2,635 tonnes of water that's used to irrigate rooftop gardens, cool solar cells, as an emergency water supply and in toilets. Constructing such rainwater-harvesting systems in new Bangkok buildings could help reduce the risk of severe flooding in the rainy season.

Instead of "thinking big", we should think outside the box when it comes to water management. With small reservoirs in rural areas and rainwater harvesting in cities, we could store excess water in the rainy season and help prevent severe flooding while at the same time slaking the country's thirst when the sky runs dry.


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