From: Rungrawee C. Pinyorat, Associated Press
Published March 20, 2005 12:00 AM

Nationwide Drought Hits Home in Thailand's Poor Northeast

BAN NONG MA, Thailand — Every morning, 59-year-old Kiew Intra rises early to drive her cart several kilometers (miles) to the local disaster relief center in northeastern Thailand, to queue up for a dozen four-liter (one-gallon) jugs of clean water.


The land around the center is as parched as her own neighborhood, where the ponds and canals dried up months ago -- but it's where government water trucks come for emergency distribution as Thailand's seasonal drought hits home again.


Severe drought is also affecting millions of mostly rural poor people in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. It's variously blamed on seasonal rainfall fluctuations, global warming and China's damming of the Mekong River, which flows through the region.


"The drought this year is the worst," said Kiew, who lives with a 6-year-old grandson in Ban Nong Ma, a village of 1,500 people 210 kilometers (130 miles) northeast of Bangkok.


Deputy Agriculture Minister Newin Chidchob says this year's drought is the worst in seven or eight years.


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Dams in Thailand's Northeast, its poorest region, are less than half full. Tap water is practically a distant memory, and former lakes and ponds likewise have been dusty for months. The big ceramic jars most villagers use to catch rain in their yards contain, at most, a couple of centimeters (inches) of fetid water.


According to official figures, this year's drought has damaged 2 million hectares (5.2 million acres) of farmland, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars (euros) in economic losses. More than 9 million people in 66 of Thailand's 76 provinces have been directly affected by the water shortage. Damage mounts by the day.


Thai farmers need water to grow rice, their primary crop. But now, the only water available -- by truck -- is just enough for people, not plants.


Two crops are normally grown a year, but Newin said he expects only 10 percent of Thailand's arable land can sustain two harvests this year.


With more than 60 percent of Thais engaged in agriculture, the scope of the problem is huge.


"The rice grains have withered because there was no rain," said Ban Nong Ma farmer Boonma Klaiklangplu, 54.


Last year she sold about four tons of rice and earned roughly 28,000 baht (US$730, euro547). This year she has produced only two tons, and may not earn enough to feed her family of five.


Sugar cane, another major commodity, is also hard hit.


Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government is scrambling for solutions.


In an unprecedented move, King Bhumibol Adulyadej will command a newly established rainmaking center near his summer palace in the coastal town of Hua Hin.


Forty-five aircraft will start seeding clouds with chemicals in the next few days in a bid to induce rain, though officials caution that the method will be difficult in hot, dry areas.


The Cabinet has voted for emergency funding to keep water trucks rolling and maintain wells and pipes, and the government has vowed to work out a long-term water management program. It has even announced its intention to negotiate with neighboring countries to divert water from their rivers.


Meanwhile, even children are pitching in. The school Kiew's grandson attends has asked students to bring their own drinking water to class.


"We can do nothing except wait for the rain," said Kiew.


Source: Associated Press


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