Parsing the impact of the parched season
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Parsing the impact of the parched season

The likelihood of less rainfall this year will affect crops and raw material prices

A view of Kwan Phayao Lake in Phayao province in northern Thailand last month. The lake dried up because of extreme weather conditions. (Photo: Sarot Meksophawannakul)
A view of Kwan Phayao Lake in Phayao province in northern Thailand last month. The lake dried up because of extreme weather conditions. (Photo: Sarot Meksophawannakul)

The effects of the El Niño weather pattern are becoming increasingly evident with the persistence of hot, dry weather and high temperatures despite the official start of the rainy season on May 22, as announced by the Meteorological Department.

The department said the total rainfall throughout the country during the rainy season will be lower this year than in 2022, roughly 5% below the annual average. This anticipated decrease in rainfall may result in prolonged dry spells across numerous regions, leading to potential water shortages.

The department predicts there is a possibility the El Niño phenomenon could continue until February 2024.

Rainfall is expected to peak in August and September, with one or two tropical storms moving across the northern and northeastern regions of Thailand, bringing heavy rain and triggering flash floods, according to the department.

The weather pattern forms from unusually warm waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean, near the coast of South America, and is often accompanied by a slowing down or reversal of the easterly trade winds.

Q: How will the extreme weather affect Thailand?

Nipon Puapongsakorn, a distinguished fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute, said the forecasts from scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate the El Niño phenomenon started in the Pacific Ocean and is expected to gradually intensify from October to November. There is a possibility the weather pattern may persist until next year.

If drought conditions persist next year, he said durian is likely to be the most affected crop in the agricultural sector. Durian trees bloom from October to November and require a lot of water during the four-month period until harvest.

If there is a water shortage, the flowers will drop, and without proper water management, conflicts may arise between the agricultural, industrial and service sectors, said Mr Nipon.

Visit Limlurcha, vice-chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said the probability of an El Niño occurrence in the latter half of this year has increased to 55%, and there is a high likelihood the weather could continue until the second quarter next year. The peak probability is a 93% chance of dry, hot conditions in February 2024, while some projections expect that weather to continue until the fourth quarter of 2024.

He said the resulting impact would be a widespread drought in parts of Asia and Thailand, predominantly affecting agricultural areas.

Mr Visit, who is a leader of future food and processed food trade associations, said a major concern is the production of field cash crops will be affected, as they serve as raw materials.

The associations have requested assistance from the Royal Rain Operation Centre to help provide artificial rain to assist in cultivation areas, including for pineapple, which has been severely affected by drought.

Roughly 40% of 1.4 million tonnes of pineapples have been damaged this year, with production estimated at 1 million tonnes for 2023, a decrease of 29%.

Q: Which sectors are susceptible to severe drought?

According to Mr Visit, drought significantly reduces crop yields, creating a cascading effect on both quantity and production costs. A shortage of products can increase prices, gradually driving up raw material prices, especially for food, which is closely linked to crops, he said.

This cycle can also affect the country's income, exports and economy, said Mr Visit.

The livestock industry is projected to have higher costs for animal feed, but this can be compensated for with higher sales prices. The hotter weather will likely result in decreased output to the market, he said.

Heavy rainfall is estimated to lead to increased cultivation of soybeans, resulting in a glut, which may pose a risk to prices, said Mr Visit. Tuna prices are expected to increase during El Niño, becoming a negative factor for the industry, according to trade associations.

The quantity of fruit output and rising sugar prices will affect fruit and beverage producers, but they should benefit from the hot weather increasing demand for their products, said Mr Visit.

Tap water suppliers could suffer losses from reduced rainfall or insufficient water supply, while producers of fans and air conditioners are expected to benefit as hot weather should drive demand for their goods, he said.

Q: What is the impact on Thai rice production and shipments?

Chookiat Ophaswongse, honorary president of the Thai Rice Exporters Association, said it is still too early to determine whether the El Niño phenomenon would affect the country's rice production, as it depends on the level of rainfall from July to September.

Mr Chookiat said the region that cultivates the most paddy rice for the annual main crop is the Northeast, which is reliant on rainfall for cultivation. If there is less rainfall, it is likely to have an impact, he said.

Under normal circumstances, annual main crop paddy rice production is 24 million tonnes, with 8 million tonnes produced during off-season periods. Off-season production should be fine as there is adequate water supply for irrigation during this period, Mr Chookiat said.

However, this situation is not unique to Thailand as export rivals such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar are also going to be affected, he said.

Given the growing concern about the impact of El Niño, importing countries are significantly accelerating rice purchases. The Philippines, Indonesia and China have placed large rice orders, with the Philippines and China buying large quantities from Vietnam, leading that nation's rice exports to top 4 million tonnes in the first five months of this year.

Thailand shipped 3.4 million tonnes of rice during that period.

Vietnam could potentially export 7.5 million tonnes of rice this year, but may encounter a shortage in the second half, said Mr Chookiat. This could present an opportunity for Thailand to increase its shipments to more than 8 million tonnes this year, surpassing its target of 7.5 million tonnes, he said.

Q: How are the private and public sectors preparing to tackle the impact?

According to Mr Visit, the Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking (JSCCIB) sent a letter to the prime minister on May 31 proposing expedited measures to address drought, both in the short and long term. They view drought and flooding as opportunity costs for the country.

The government should integrate sustainable and systematic approaches to address these issues, as the investment would be beneficial for the economy over the long term, said the committee.

The JSCCIB proposed the government speed up the development of water management plans to ensure an adequate water supply for agricultural production and exports, particularly for major export commodities such as rice, sugar, palm oil, pineapple and sweet corn.

The group also emphasised the need to accelerate negotiations to open new markets and elevate the industry supply line from the source to the end product, enabling companies to tackle any challenges that may arise from the El Niño phenomenon.

These challenges include increased production costs, which would result in an average price adjustment of around 5-10% for goods. If Thailand experiences a drought and limited water supply, it will affect the cost of goods and competitiveness in the export market, said the JSCCIB.

Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said the caretaker government has been monitoring progress on water management and is directing relevant agencies to prepare to cope with the impacts of the El Niño phenomenon.

The Office of the National Water Resources is tracking drought management measures and discussing strategies to manage water resources, in line with weather conditions.

The office prepared operational plans prior to the rainy season, including estimating areas at risk of flooding and water scarcity, reviewing and improving management criteria for water sources and reservoirs, and developing integrated water management plans.

In addition, the agency repaired and upgraded irrigation structures, drainage systems and telemetering systems to enhance water drainage efficiency.

Storage of all types of water sources was expedited during the late rainy season to ensure sufficient water supply during the dry season, according to the office.

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