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Thailand's rice basket shrivels amid drought of long-term policy

Mar 03. 2015
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By Achara Deboonme

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The tyranny of the hot season has returned, as the temperature climbs towards a sizzling 40 degrees.
Office workers are complaining about the steamy commute to air-conditioned workplaces. They should spare a thought for those who have to work under the blazing sun, including farmers, who are watching their crops whither for lack of water – though they won’t fetch much anyway at current prices.
Official statistics show that the country’s major reservoirs have dropped to 57-60 per cent capacity – near the levels of 2005 when one of Thailand’s worst-ever droughts affected 71 provinces and caused nearly Bt8 billion in damage. 
This year, the Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives Ministry estimates the drought will affect 16.17 million rai of farmland in 58 provinces, including 12.61 million rai in the Northeast, the region least covered by the national irrigation system.
Over half of our working-age population is in the agricultural sector, yet for decades the irrigation system has expanded at a snail’s pace.
The latest figures show that in 2012, only 29.57 million rai, or 9.22 per cent of Thailand’s landmass, was irrigated.
That represents only a slight increase on the 28.35 million rai in 2009.
That year, as the Royal Irrigation Department celebrated its 107th anniversary, its chief unveiled a plan to expand the irrigated area by 6 million rai by 2020. He explained that Thailand’s reservoirs had a combined capacity of 52,741 million cubic metres – only 70 per cent of the annual demand of 73,788 million m3. Without new investment, the shortfall could hit 34,183 million m3 in 2019.
The root of this long-standing problem lies in the fact that policymakers treat irrigation as a political tool, channelling budgets to temporary projects that only address short-term hurdles. No government has ever embarked on a grand-scale project to tackle long-term problems. Irrigation plans were included in the Yingluck government’s Bt350 billion water-management plan, but it was the 2011 flood that sparked its creation, not drought.
The junta scrapped that plan and drew up a new strategy, expected to cost about Bt900 billion over 10 years. However, last month the Cabinet refused to green-light the comprehensive strategy, approving only some of its projects for this fiscal year and keeping the budget to Bt50 billion. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha admitted that the limited budget available meant only urgent projects could be carried out this year, though the 10-year strategy remained in place.
The Cabinet resolution received wide media coverage, but not so the attacks from the Engineering Institute of Thailand (EIT), which is adamant that the strategy and the investment for this year do not meet the national interest.
The EIT’s academic network criticised the strategy for ignoring public views and failing to address the root problems. Warning that the plan carried more negative consequences than the Yingluck government’s version, it vowed not to rubber stamp the project.
Pramote Maiklad, former chief of the Royal Irrigation Department, remarked that “The NCPO’s version is not a real strategic plan, but rather the annual budget allocation plan.”
With the global economy still fragile thanks to the slowdown in China and difficulties in the euro zone and Japan, Thailand’s exports are expected to remain sluggish. TMB Analytics anticipates a 1 per cent growth rate this year, following two years of contraction. In this scenario, economists agree that domestic demand should play a bigger role in driving the economy. Yet, they are also concerned about lower crop prices, which will reduce farmers’ income. Couple that with Thailand’s high household debt of 85 per cent of GDP, and there are doubts about how much farmers and consumers in general can spend.  
As part of its economic stimulation programme, the government plans cash handouts for farmers.
While that move is welcomed by Federation of Thai Industries chairman Supant Mongkolsuthree, he said last week that what are truly needed are mid- to long-term solutions to help farmers lift productivity and lower production costs.
I guess that he might not like the Commerce Ministry’s Blue Flag project either. The project, which sells products at ad-hoc markets at about 30 per cent below their market price, reaches relatively few people but costs over Bt100 million annually. It will require a budget of Bt241 million this fiscal year.
If farmers’ income were to climb in a sustainable way, they would be able to spend more and perhaps also save more. But as things stand, their finances are at the mercy of capricious Mother Nature. And no matter who is in power, their problems remain neglected.
Thailand can no longer afford to handle problems as they arise. We need to start thinking “out of the box” and forge long-term strategies.
Thai nationalists have enjoyed success in guarding our tiny petroleum reserves. They should also push for a reform agenda to deal with drought. If the problems aren’t addressed in a sustainable and comprehensive way, millions of our farmers will likely need government support when they get old and can’t work in the fields. Then, the moaning from taxpayers will only get louder.

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