The quest for a sustainable Songkran

The government has implored revellers to use less water due to the nation's ongoing drought, but the challenge is to balance the need for tourism with the necessity of conservation

Water splashing never came with guilt, until recently. This is Songkran, and water is the currency that we once spent as if there were no tomorrow.

But there will be a tomorrow. The severe drought, known as the worst in 20 years, does not only dry up all major reservoirs in the country, but castrate the joyful spirit of Songkran -- to an extent. Many areas in several provinces in Thailand have declared themselves in emergency drought situations, such as Chiang Mai, Uttaradit, Sukhothai, Nakhon Sawan, Nakhon Ratchasima, Buriram, Kanchanaburi and Nakhon Si Thammarat.

For the first time, the government has to implore revellers to help save water by being moderate, such as sprinkling instead of drenching, or using mist sprayers instead of water machine guns. Of course, water splashing is taking place right now, but officials have made an attempt to scale down our water parties.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has reduced the official Songkran celebrations on Silom Road from four to three days, starting today until Friday, and cut-off the splashing at 9pm, instead of midnight as was typical. Elsewhere, it's up to the reveller, since the call for water saving is voluntary as the government is aware of the reality that a waterless Songkran is bad for the economy. Spending during the festival will amount to 15 billion baht, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand's projection; water during Songkran is not just water, but a means to boost tourism.

The challenge is how to keep the spirit of Songkran alive, without hurting the feelings of farmers and rural villagers who live in arid areas, and to balance the need for tourism with the need to conserve natural resources.

Saving water should extend beyond Songkran

Songkran in the age of climate change is a painful paradox. As Thailand's severe drought drags into its third year, we will see revellers in cities celebrate by throwing water, while rural villagers need to live with rations, and farmers in some areas have had to stop farming on the government's orders.

The problem is not about this coming week but the future -- and the problem is not just about the three days of Songkran. With the Mekong River blocked with dams and climate-change-induced drought, the excessive use of water may even cause social injustice. The challenge is thus much bigger than just this water festival, but how to run an effective water management policy that has lasting success.

"The government needs to educate people about water consumption to help them understand the whole picture of how water is consumed and what they can do to help save it. It does not help saving water that much if you skip splashing water during Songkran but still turn on tap water when you brush your teeth the whole year. You need to preserve water consistently so the country will have enough water to generate additional economic value," said Assoc Prof Sucharit Koontanakulvong, head of Water Resources System Research Unit, Department of Water Resources Engineering, Faculty of Engineering at Chulalongkorn University.

Assoc Prof Sucharit said that the negative perception towards the Songkran Festival is sometimes overstated.

"In reality, the amount of water used during this festival is not enormous, if you look at water consumption in the bigger picture. Actually water consumption during the Songkran Festival is offset by the fact that factories are closed for holidays and people return home. Scaling down the festival will not lead to any significant change in water reservoirs. But it will create a psychological effect, since it will show that urban residents care about farmers and the whole country unites in one in order to combat drought."

Indeed, the overall amount of water consumption during Songkran in Bangkok and the vicinity area doesn't peak as people usually believe, even though the Metropolitan Waterworks Authority (MWA) needs to inject 100,000m² of water each day, the equivalent of 8,333 12-tonne trucks, to make sure revellers and tourists have enough water to splash.

Water consumption in Bangkok and the surrounding area has actually fallen 10-20% during the last three Songkrans, from 2012-2015, because businesses and factories were closed, and a lot of people left the city, according to Tasnee Rerksantiwong, assistant to Metropolitan MWA governor.

Turning off tap water during this festival might be counterproductive for the country's established tourism. Songkran Festival is known as a tourist magnet and countries in Southeast Asia are trying to promote their own Songkrans, such as Singapore.

The challenge is the Thai government must launch a long-term campaign to educate and encourage people to sprinkle water and use water bowls, not water hoses, buckets and water spray guns. The government also needs to create zoning for water splashing, to limit intensive water splashing areas.

"The state also needs to create water inventories in order to know how much water we have, and how we can divide it and use it for activities. People need to be educated about the total water situation and water consumption in order to use and save water every day."

- Anchalee Kongrut

Revellers having fun on Khao San Road last year.

Ice and water still flowing in Khao San

Despite the worries of water shortages due to a severe drought in many areas around the country, the party will go on, and tourists are still planning on getting soaked for the new year water festival.

This year, tourist hot spot Khao San Road, which normally attracts tens of thousands of water-throwing tourists, will face decreased water pressure and a 9pm curfew alongside the rest of the city's 50 districts.

The water-saving measures were announced by deputy Bangkok governor Amorn Kitchawengkul last month.

However, many tourists on Khao San Road were largely unaware of the drought and water restrictions.

Luke Anstead, a DJ from Cambridge in Britain, came to Thailand because he had been told Songkran was the best time to visit. Yet, he hadn't heard about the drought.

"It surprises me because over here I always get lots of ice in my beer," he said. "If there's such a drought why not leave out the ice?

"The drought may impact the amount of water I throw but as long as it's available in bottles then I will use it."

Piyabut Jiwaramonaikul, president of the Khao San Road business enterprise association, recently said there would be no water throwing on April 12, as it sometimes happened to extend the festivity period. Water splashing this year will begin today.

New Zealander Jamie Small says he will do what the locals want.

"I had no idea about the drought to be honest. I don't really have any plans to save water. I've been to Songkran before and everyone is just throwing water everywhere," he said.

"If the locals have some kind of plan for saving water, then I'll respect that but if there's a water fight party going on I'm getting among that."

Another tourist, Fendi Thien, has celebrated Songkran before in Phuket.

"This year we've planned to celebrate Songkran in Chiang Mai as we heard it's the best place to celebrate. The water shortage is an issue for Thailand and it's worrying there will be a lot of water wastage during this holiday period.

"We are considering only participating for one day instead of the whole three days."

Glenn Collier said that while Songkran is a big deal in Thailand, he was going to try and dodge it where possible.

"I know the provinces have been stockpiling water for the event but it's not my kind of festival. It is nice to be a spectator though," he said.

- Jessica McAllen

'Misty' Songkran

Bangkok governor's chief adviser Wallop Suwandee made headlines when he said last month that instead of splashes, people should celebrate the water festival using a gentle spray.

At the press conference of "Bangkok Songkran Festival at Silom : BSF @Silom 2016", Wallop proposed an idea, following severe drought in a number of parts of the country, that we use mist sprays instead of garden hoses, buckets or sophisticated high-power water guns. Now, the mist idea may seem a little bit funny at first and even treacherous to the true spirit of Songkran, but it's actually one of the best things to come from the BMA, considering their reputation lately.

Actually on Monday, Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda used a mist spray to show the spirit of sustainable Songkran to reporters.

But a "misty" Songkran is merely a suggestion as the official measures launched earlier are to limit water splashing activities in the city's 50 districts to before 9pm. Up in the North in Chiang Mai, also a hub for Songkran parties, the municipal office didn't encourage the use of mist sprays but imposes a limit on the sale of bucket water. Still the city inspected the quality of the water in its city moats and ensures revellers that they can use as much as they want.

The mist spray may inspire laughter, but in fact it is not without merit. The small amount of water required reminds us of how little water the traditional Songkran Festival rituals actually require -- whether it's water pouring on Buddha statues or over the palms of elders' hands as way of paying respect, the traditional rod nam dam hua ceremony. Water, we should realise, is a symbol of purification -- a washing away of sins and bad luck. It's not that splashing water won't wash away all sins and bad luck, but maybe this year isn't just the right time.

The true spirit, therefore, may not be just about getting wet, but simply about having days off to get back home and just be with the people you love. The BMA's measures, commendable though they may be, are not enough. There should be only one day of water throwing. No, one day of water spraying.

- Kaona Pongpipat

Do you like the content of this article?
  COMMENT  (2)