Thai farmers told to wait for rain, save water for public

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's prime minister on Wednesday told farmers to stop using water in agriculture to save it for public consumption, as the capital remained spared from the worst drought in decades.

Military personnel and government officials were sent to stop farmers from pumping water released from dams into their farmland. Previously, authorities asked farmers in the central plains to hold off on planting rice, but many had already begun growing their crops.

Thailand has seen little rain since the rainy season officially started in the last week of May, leaving water levels in dams critically low. More rainfall is expected in August.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said that farmers should wait for the rain.

"We have to help people to survive first. First we tried to sustain both livelihood and agriculture. When we couldn't help the agriculture, we have to admit it, because people are more important," Prayuth told reporters. "I feel sorry for the farmers, but there's really nothing we can do."

The Office of Agricultural Economics estimated that farmers in Thailand's central plains alone could lose 60 billion baht ($1.8 billion).

As the shortage worsens, Bangkok's urban dwellers have grown increasingly concerned.

The Metropolitan Waterworks Authority, overseeing water supply in Bangkok and a few nearby provinces, has been slowing tap water production since May and earlier warned that the current water supply for daily consumption in the capital would last only 30 days.

But similar to the major flood in 2011, the capital is likely to be spared with the government's help while more rural areas suffer.

The city's waterworks chief, Gov. Thanasak Watanathana, said Bangkok will not be affected.

"I insist that right now the drought has no impact on Bangkok. The interior minister and the Irrigation Department have guaranteed with us that Bangkok will have enough water until the rains come," he told The Associated Press. "Everything is still under control."

However, he warned that the tap water might be saltier, though not enough to taste. The rivers are too low to push away water from the Gulf of Thailand, so seawater will be part of the tap water mixture. "The water's saltiness might rise up a little bit, but let's say people won't be able to tell."

Satisfying the thirst of Bangkok's people threatened the supply for 50,000 families in a neighboring province.

While the Chao Phraya River — the major river in Thailand's central plains — was being saved for consumption in the capital, the local waterworks office in Pathumthani province nearly ran out of raw water to produce tap water earlier this week.

"The province was unable to divert water from the Chao Phraya River since it would have affected the tap water production in Bangkok," said Nutchanart Iamsakul, the head of Thanyaburi district's waterworks agency. "We were so close to having tap water stopped running in several districts. But the Irrigation Department figured an alternative, so the crisis was averted."