The Northeast is parched and farmers are bearing the brunt of water scarcity at the height of summer.
At the same time, the pinnacle of Thailand's summer is marked by Songkran, the traditional New Year water festival celebrated here as well as several other Southeast Asian countries.
People in the Northeast are usually hardest hit by the dearth of water and drought. This year, 45 provinces have already been declared disaster areas by the Interior Ministry. The majority are in the northeastern region.
But the importance of the Songkran festival may overshadow the water scarcity problem. For many provinces, the festival means collective happiness - a time when migrant workers return home to reunite with their families. For business, it is a time when money flows along with the water. Indeed, some provinces declared disaster zones still intend to hold festivities, and yet the authorities know that it would be disrespectful to affected farmers to encourage the use of a lot of water during the next five days of celebration.
Khon Kaen province is a good example of this balancing act. Its governor, Somsak Suwansucharit, has come up with a new theme for the province's famous celebration on Khao Niew Road.
Declared a disaster zone, the province named the Songkran festival "Sid Tan Sard", meaning, "spray not splash" in the local dialect. "Sid Tan Sard" aims to create new way to celebrate Songkran without squandering a precious resource.
Water shortage in Khon Kaen has reached a critical level as the water in Ubolrat Dam has sharply dropped to 30% of its usual storage level - the lowest in a decade. But at the same time, Khon Kaen has been reaping huge economic benefits from its Songkran festival since 1988. Despite water problems in the farming sector, the province decided to go ahead with the festival.
Instead of lavishly supplying water to the public through hoses and water tanks, the authorities will distribute 100,000 bottles of water to people who join the Songkran festival on Khao Niew Road and other areas.
Other cities less affected by water shortage such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai - two nerve centres of the mega-splash - will continue their merry-making without much worry.
Silom and Khao San roads in Bangkok will be packed with revellers. The Metropolitan Waterworks Authority (MWA), which supplies tap water to the capital, Nonthaburi and Samut Prakan, will add more than 100,000 cubic metres of water to its system each day during the next five days, starting tomorrow, to make sure the public have enough water to celebrate.
Meanwhile, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) plans to deploy hundreds of street cleaners to cope with the aftermath of the revelry. Thousands of litres of water from the Chao Phraya river will be used to clean powder off the streets.
Harnnarong Yaowalert, a conservationist and head of the Foundation for Integrated Water Management, said the demand for water during the Songkran celebrations in tourist areas adds to the water scarcity.
"Water in reservoirs and irrigation systems in Chiang Mai province are diverted to accommodate the festival. Harng Dong community, which is located downstream, must bear the brunt of the dried up canal as water is drained for Songkran celebrations in Chiang Mai municipality," he said.
The Royal Irrigation Department's deputy director-general, Suthep Noipairoj, said the department does not have a policy to divert water for Songkran celebrations.
"Our water diversion plan will remain the same. We will divert water into the irrigation system as usual, nothing more or less. But for the Northeast, I have to say that as it is, there is not enough water for normal consumption, let alone for celebrating Songkran," he said.
But water scarcity will not be felt in Bangkok and its municipal areas. The MWA and BMA will work closely to ensure that the Songkran festival will run smoothly and everyone will be able to get soaked and smile.
This is necessary since Songkran has become a major source of revenue for tourism and related businesses. The event is world famous. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) reportedly expects the five-day festival to generate more than 11 billion baht for the tourism industry. It is expected that 100 million baht will be generated on Khao San Road alone during the festival.
"You may think that Songkran adds to water scarcity. But water consumption and demand during Songkran is a fraction of total water consumption," said the MWA's director-general Charoen Passara.
"The public should worry about increasing electricity consumption during summer. Water consumption during summer usually increases because people take more showers, not necessarily because of the Songkran splurge."
For Bangkok, Nonthaburi and Samut Prakan provinces, total daily consumption is 5.2 million cubic metres. During the summer, water consumption - mostly from showers - increases to 100,000 cubic metres per day. The MWA estimates that water splashing during the Songkran festival in the capital and its vicinities will add another 100,000 cubic metres to daily demand.
"The amount of water for Songkran activities is minimal," Charoen said. "Yet, we have to admit that during summer, there is an overall severe water shortage in the agricultural sector. But water during Songkran is not just water, it is a cultural object. So we regard water as a vehicle to promote culture and water also generates income for the tourism industry."
AFTER THE MAYHEM
Khao San Road in Phra Nakhon district is perhaps the most famous spot for Songkran festivities in Thailand. Foreigners and local teenagers flock to the narrow road, just to douse water indiscriminately on anyone. Apart from water, powder is another icon of Songkran here. Calcium carbonate can soothe pimples and cool off heat. Yet the water-soaked powder can be an agent of germs. Germ-contaminated powder can cause severe eye infections and even poisoning if ingested orally. The powder can also stick to cars and damage their paintwork.
According to Phra Nakhon district director, Junope Nuchanat, it requires 200 street cleaners to deal with the dirt and powder on Khao San, Visuth Krasat (a traditional area for celebrating Songkran) and Phra Arthit roads. It takes 30 water trucks containing a total of 60,000 litres of water from the Chao Phraya to rinse the dirt and powder from those streets.
SHOOT ME, WITH PLASTIC RIFLES
Decades ago, children would accept it if parents gave them buckets to splash water during Songkran. But nowadays, children will not settle for less than fancy water machine guns. These have become a colourful icon of the Songkran festival in Thailand with an estimated market value of several hundred million baht, according to estimates by various media sources.
Models vary and prices start from 10 baht for a basic old-fashioned pistol to entry-level water machine guns that can store up to one litre, to premium models priced at over 300 baht with features such as a backup storage container that allows you to spray more water with greater convenience.
VALUE OF THE CLEAR STUFF
The culture of Songkran has changed. Thais and tourists now head to popular destinations such as Khao San and Silom roads just to throw water at strangers. People wield water guns, which cost from 10-360 baht. And since it's not possible to carry buckets from home, while on the road making a splash revellers might buy bottles of drinking water to refill their water guns or buy water from shops in the areas.
Last year, small water trucks from the MWA couldn't reach Khao San Road, so visitors had to buy water from shops on the street, a lucrative business for them.
According to the MWA, shops usually sell water at a rip-off rate. Tap water from the MWA is very cheap - 12 baht per 1,000 litres, or 0.012 baht per litre. Drinking water is sold at 5 baht for one litre.
THE WEIGHT OF CELEBRATION
On April 13 last year, people in Bangkok, Nonthaburi and Samut Prakan provinces consumed an additional 100,000 cubic metres of water, presumably for splashing to celebrate Songkran. According to the Metropolitan Waterworks Authority (MWA), that amount of water was added to the tap water system. For the sake of comparison, that amount of water would need 8,333 12-tonne trucks for storage. If those 8,333 trucks lined up, the total length would be 100km - the distance from Bangkok to Sara Buri province.
Related search: Khon Kaen
About the author
- Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: News Reporter