The Agricultural Extension Department in February asked farmers in the Chao Phraya Basin to halt their off-seasonal rice growing and switch to less water consuming crops. Credit: DOAE

POLICY BRIEF: El Niño and the Lessons Learned in Water Management and Long-term Climate Policies of Thailand

El Niño has shown itself up once again since mid-last year. As it has become weakened and the episode is now shifting to La Niña, Thailand has learned the lessons to cope with flaws in its water management as well as long-term climate policies

Like other countries along the western side of the tropical Pacific Ocean, Thailand has been experiencing El Niño since mid-last year, which has brought along with it disruptive weather events and patterns, especially extreme heat and severe droughts.

El Niño, or Little Boy in Spanish, as explained by climate monitoring organisations including the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), is a naturally recurring climate pattern, two to seven years on average, which is associated with warming of the sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. 

This is largely due to the weakening of the trade winds, which usually blow westward along the Equator and bring warm water towards Asia. As it becomes weakened, the warm water instead moves eastward, resulting in increased rainfall in the eastern side of the ocean, from parts of the southern United States, southern South America, the Horn of Africa and central Asia, in contrast to its western side, from Australia, Indonesia, parts of southern Asia, Central America, and northern South America, which rather experience drier-than-usual weather conditions.

In mid-last year, El Niño’s presence was confirmed by the WMO. It then reached its peak during November and January and persisted through March until May this year. With the presence of the already warming climate, the WMO marked the 2023/2024 El Niño as one of the five strongest El Niño events ever, following the 1997/98 and 2015/2016 events.

As noted by the WMO, every month since June 2023 had set a new monthly temperature record, and 2023 was by far the warmest year on record, with El Niño contributing to these record temperatures. The sea surface temperatures of the ocean as recorded by the WMO rose from about 0.5C above average in May to around 1.5C above average in September 2023.

The WMO has projected that El Niño would weaken and transition to La Niña this June-August, during which the trade winds blow westward stronger than usual, pushing more warm water towards Asia, thus increasing rainfall.

El Niño as updated in March this year. Credit: WMO

Climate scientists and water management experts including the noted IPCC author, Assoc.Prof.Dr. Seree Supratid shared their concerns over the phenomenon since the beginning at the Dialogue Forum, El Niño; from Global Warming to Global Boiling, where they expressed concerns about its impacts, especially on the agricultural sector, which is the most sensitive to the climate.

The scientists and experts agreed that the phenomenon further fuelled the already warming climate, prompting more severe disruptive weather events and patterns. 

During the 2015/ 2016 El Niño event, Thailand could not grow rice in nine million rai in total due to water shortage, according to Dr. Seree. This accounts for one-sixth of the country’s rice growing area, which is about 60 million rai or over. 

The climate scientist and other experts at the forum had projected similarly that Thailand would face less rainfall and water shortage during the 2023 episode that could last until the beginning of the rainy season this year. Rainfall lessened by 19% from the annual average of around 1,600 millimetres shortly after the episode started, according to the Office of National Water Resources (ONWR).

Following El Niño’s influence, the water budget or usable water at the end of the 2023 rainy season was projected at around 26,000 million cubic metres or only 55% of the total usable storage capacity. In April, the country also faced extreme heat and severe droughts that lasted until the beginning of the rainy season this year, further exacerbating the water shortage in the country.

With such disruptive climate patterns brought by El Niño and climate change, Thailand has faced increasingly abnormal weather conditions by up to 40%, and the trend likely increases, considering the analyses of the available data set in 60 years, Dr. Seree sharply remarked.

The RID sent its officials out during the dry season to convince farmers in the Chao Praya basin to halt their second round of off-seasonal rice growing. Credit: RID

Policy challenges

Every year, concerned agencies including the ONWR and the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) will come together around the end of the rainy season to plan the use and distribution of water in the next dry season based on the water budget accumulated from rainfall during the rainy season. This mainly covers around 35 million rai of irrigated land and urban areas. Thailand has around 150 million rai of agricultural land, meaning over 70% of the land is still extensively non-irrigated.

Despite the planning, the country’s annual water management plan is seen as short-sighted, failing to take into account emerging factors like   El Niño and climate change. This is because it’s mostly prepared a year on year basis although concerned agencies defend that they do take into account these factors in their planning. As the growing season approaches, what they could do at best is issuing short notices or warnings to farmers to put their rice growing on hold and switch to less water-consuming crops to avoid damage.

The ONWR has in recent years developed and put in place the national Thai Water Plan to guide water resources development and management countrywide, but the plan is questioned as to what extent it has been shared and reached localities.

As voiced in the forum by farmer representatives, the state’s plans and budgets as well as power in problem-solving and decision-making in water management are still much tied up with central agencies. These factors, they claim, pose limitations in problem-solving in localities.

For instance, in an attempt to seek new water sources or improve existing waterways to cope with the disruptive weather patterns, local people may have to go through several agencies to get approval, aside from the ONWR and the RID. This is particularly true when it comes to the use of public land and facilities to serve the purposes. These agencies, they added, still work based on their roles and responsibilities and do not well coordinate.

The climate and water management experts and farmer representatives shared their views at the forum.

Policy recommendations

As noted by the experts at the forum, water distribution and management of the country needs a rethinking amid the disruptive weather and climate patterns. Long-term knowledge of climate change and extreme weather needs to be created to facilitate more flexible and long-term risk assessment and planning.

Conceptual designs of water management systems and models need to be revived and shared among local people so that they can adapt them to their circumstances as well as risk communications. This is particularly critical to non-irrigated areas which are still vast in the country. 

Decentralisation of power and budgets needs to be reinforced through new or existing bodies such as water resources committees at local levels, while localities should be supported to become more self-reliant so that they can help themselves during a crisis.

Climate policies need to be strengthened and priorities should be given to adaptation and resilience rather than mitigation so the country can address long-term climate risks better.

Last but not least, other aspects including economics and politics need to be taken into account in problem-solving and decision-making for climate-related risks and challenges so that more proper and responsive interventions can be developed and put in place such as debt suspensions, compensations, farm insurance, and others.

Also read: El Niño, จากโลกร้อนสู่โลกแล้ง I El Niño, from Global Warming to Global Boiling