March 15, 2017

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Are we prepared to meet the water shortages?

  • Khin Maung Myint
Village water supply system in rural Thailand.

The winter had left and the summer is starting to set in. With that transition, news of water shortages, especially in the dry central parts of the country would be streaming into the news media soon. It’s an annual phenomenal occurence since our younger days as far as I can remember. This year too would be the same or may be even worse, with the climate change and the global warming expected to be more severe than before. The temperature rises are getting higher year after year since 2014 and experts are forecasting that trend would likely continue. So, are we prepared?
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, people in the dry zones are experiencing droughts and water shortages every year since time immemorial. Some places close to the coastal areas where sea water reaches way up into the rivers and streams during high tides, have to face the similar fates too.
Successive administrations had endeavoured to tackle those problems, but still they haven’t been solved satisfactorily. Many reservoirs and dams were being built during the past couple or more decades and still the same problems kept popping up every dry seasons. So, what could be at fault, could it be they are not adequate enough to cope with the increasing requirements or lack of proper water management? These are the basic points, from a layman’s point of view, for the authorities to consider.
Though I’m not a professional or an expert in that field, I must say I’m somewhat familiar with such matters as I had served in a district administration at one time during my career and knew how our Irrigation Department operated. With the basic knowledge gained from the past, I was able to widen my knowledge of water resources managements during my frequent visits and long durations of stay at various construction sites for reservoirs and diversion weirs in Thailand, where my son worked.
Based on those meager knowledge acquired, I would like to discuss this water shortage problem. To begin with, it may be necessary for me to describe the scenario that attracted my attention on my first visit in 1997 to the North Eastern region of Thailand known as Isaan. That place is situated on what used to be known, from the world geography lessons during my schooling days in the 1950s, as the Korat Plateau—a dry and arid area. However, to my surprise, what I saw was a total contrast to that description. The whole region was blanketed in lush green vegetations. Large stretches of teak plantations, endless paddy fields, sugar cane fields stretching for miles and miles, large rubber plantations, vast plantations of pineapples, diverse varieties of fruit orchards and vegetable farms lined the highways everywhere we traveled. There was almost no sign of semi-desertlike terrain, as in our dry zone, which too is described as dry and arid.
At first, that situation struck me with awe and confusion, because it was totally different from what I had learned from my geography lessons. However, I later realized the truth. It was due to the well thought out and planned water resources engineering projects. Many diversion weirs and reservoirs were built in the Isaan under the guidance of the late Monarch of Thailand, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In fact, many Royaly-initiated irrigation projects were implemented in the Isaan region and all over the country. These projects helped in changing the once dry and arid land into arable and forested areas.
The late Monarch had done many things to eradicate poverty and elevate the living standards of his subjects during his long reign. There were many researches carried out in the palace grounds to find ways and means to support his subjects. Due to those researches many inventions related to sufficiency of water and farming techniques were evolved, some of which were new inventions and were even patented in His Majesty’s name.
One of the most noteworthy inventions was the rain-maker. If there should be drought in a certain area where the rains were overdue, the air planes from the rain-making squadron were immediately scrambled to that area to seed the clouds with chemicals to speed up the condensation process. No sooner than those planes left after doing their jobs, the rains would come pouring down to the delights of the farmers and the local folks alike. The Thais affectionately called such rainfall the “King’s Rain”. I had once witnessed that process carried out in the Isaan region a few years back.
There are also potable water supply arrangements for human consumptions even in the remotest villages. The responsible departments had drilled tube wells wherever feasible. In some places the water from the rivers or streams are pumped up to the water treatment stations where they are properly treated before distribution. High elevated water tanks are visible at almost every village in the rural areas. Thus consumable running water is available at every home in almost all the villages in the country. During
my frequent visits and stays in Thailand, I had never seen
anyone, anywhere, even in the rural areas fetching water with pots and buckets like in our country. I’m citing the success stories of Thailand as they are proven and good examples that we should copy.
Here, I would like to mention what an Israeli friend of mine once told me in the mid-eighties. He said, he couldn’t understand why our country, which is endowed with a variety of natural resources, large areas of very fertile soil and many large fresh water lakes, rivers and streams crisscrossing the length and breath of the country became the Least Developed Country (LDC). He went on to say that as for their country it is in the desert without any place free of sand, which made cultivation almost impossible. Yet, he said, they had managed to grow and produce vegetables in the sand using the minimal amount of water as the fresh water is very scarce there.
Since then, I contemplated quite often on what he had told me and had wondered when our authorities would come up with some viable plans to make our country prosperous again. The top most item in my wish list of things I would like the authorities to address is the water shortage problem, especially in the dry zone. As I used to be from those regions, I knew full well the plights of the locals where availability of clean water is concerned. It’s common knowledge that clean water is essential for the health and survival of humans and animals alike. So, easy access to clean drinking water is of utmost necessity.
During the dry spells, even those living in a large city like Yangon, let aside those in the rural areas, would be faced with water shortages. People pushing water carts or carrying buckets of water could be seen even in the downtown areas and crowded residential areas in the Yangon municipality area. As for those in the suburban and rural areas, their woes are unthinkable.
These water shortages had been going on for decades and no significant improvements are seen. It would be needless to say that water is essential for human and animal consumptions and for agricultural purposes. Thus it’s high time that priority should be given to overcome the water shortages urgently to alleviate the woes of the people. Also new cultivation methods for certain cash crops using minimal amount of water should be researched and introduced in places where fresh water is scarce. I’m sure this last piece of suggestion would enhance the productivity and increase the incomes of the rural populations and at the same time save water, which would certainly benefit both the people and the country.

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