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The Worst Drought in 40 Years Has Turned Bangkok Tap Water Salty

The Worst Drought in 40 Years Has Turned Bangkok Tap Water Salty

  • Lack of water imperils farm sector employing 11 million people
  • Southeast Asia’s No. 2 economy already reeling from baht surge
The Mekong River in the northeastern Thai province of Loei on Oct. 31.
The Mekong River in the northeastern Thai province of Loei on Oct. 31. Photographer: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images
The Mekong River in the northeastern Thai province of Loei on Oct. 31.
Photographer: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images

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Some residents of Bangkok can literally taste the risk of a potentially damaging drought in Thailand.

Tap water has turned saltier in parts of the city, a development blamed on the Chao Phraya river becoming too low to keep tidal seawater out. The saline intrusion is just one sign of dry conditions pointing to what the Thai Meteorological Department expects to be the worst drought in four decades.

“Drought has come earlier this year, and it’s affecting both water for agriculture as well as for drinking,” said Surapong Sarapa, head of forecasting at the agency. “More parts of the country than in the past could be impacted.”

Many Thai Reservoirs Are Far From Full

Water level as share of capacity

Source: Royal Irrigation Department

Note: Data as of Jan. 7, 2020

The dry spell imperils crop production and rural demand in a nation where about 11 million people work in the agricultural industry. It could also sap sentiment, sparking a downward economic spiral, Bank of Ayudhya Pcl said.

“Drought could stop people from spending even if they aren’t directly affected,” said the bank’s Chief Economist Somprawin Manprasert.

Half of major reservoirs are operating at less than 50% of capacity, Irrigation Department data shows.

Drought conditions are a problem across other parts of Southeast Asia too and contributed to devastating wildfires in Australia, stoking concerns about the ramifications of climate change.

The Thai weather outlook is a threat to expectations of a modest recovery in the economy, which the Bank of Thailand estimates expanded at the slowest pace in five years in 2019. Currency strength weighed on exports and tourism last year.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha on Tuesday urged Thais to save water. The government also set up a water command center to coordinate its response and allocated 6 billion baht ($198 million) for steps to prevent shortages.

— With assistance by Chloe Whiteaker, and Hannah Dormido