For some Thais who are turning on their faucets this month, what they are getting in return is a stream of salty water. The seawater intrusion, into Thailand’s lower-level rivers and reservoirs, is just one of the many effects this season as the Southeast Asian nation goes through a drought that could be its worst in four decades.
The monsoon season, which usually runs from about May to October, came two weeks late in 2019 and ended three weeks early, leaving Thailand with less rainfall than usual, according to the Mekong River Commission.
That is contributing to a drought that is drying up farms, threatening electricity supplies from hydropower dams, and looming over an economy already hurt by the coronavirus.
The government has introduced a water management command center to handle the drought, funded with $190 million, considered an investment since the prior drought cost Thailand more than $1 billion in 2016.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who will head the command center, has also asked citizens to save water by shortening showers and tooth-brushing times by one minute.
The reason residents are getting salty water is that the drought has lowered river levels, allowing seawater to enter the water supply, said Senaka Basnayake, the director of climate resilience at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center in Thailand. And there is not enough fresh water from upriver to wash out the salt.
“This is one of the signs showing the drought situation in low-lying areas in Thailand this year is worse than before,” said Basnayake.
The Mekong River, one of the world’s biggest, winds from Tibet through China and down to several nations including Thailand. Bangkok will discuss with Beijing the upriver activities, including dam building, that are restricting water from reaching the Southeast Asian nation, local media reported.
Besides leaving schools dry, the drought also poses an economic risk.
Thailand is already reeling from the big drop in Chinese tourism and ability to export and import with China, one of its biggest trading partners, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now the drought is making it harder for the nation’s 11 million farmers to grow crops such as sugar and rice, of which Thailand is the second biggest exporter in the world.
“This year’s prolonged dry weather condition can possibly adversely impact agricultural and crop production,” Lam Hung Son, head of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat’s Regional Flood and Drought Management Center, said.
Thai farmers are responding by cutting back on the amount of water they use for each plant. Power plants are decreasing their water usage as well, following a request from the government.
The responses are part of a broader reaction across the business sector, which is decreasing water consumption. Companies are more aware than ever that their actions have an environmental effect, Sira Intarakumthornchai, chief executive officer at the consulting firm PwC Thailand, said.
“Looking at Thailand, we have seen a rising awareness of the importance of sustainable development, especially among listed companies,” he said.
The drought is hitting other Mekong nations, Laos and Vietnam, but the worst impacts will be seen in Cambodia and Thailand, the Mekong River Commission said.
Part of Thailand’s response to the drought is to divert water from wetter areas to dry ones and to build up more reservoirs, though that will take time. And the nation is having to battle the drought while trying to juggle other environmental priorities at the same time, including air pollution and plastic waste. As Sira put it, “Needless to say, 2020 looks to be another difficult year.”