Thu, Jun 10, 2010 - Page 5 News List

Drought, floods threaten Thailand’s rice harvest

CROPS AT RISKpercent of total capacity, but heavy rains expected in the next three months could see seedlings destroyed in flooding


The world’s largest rice exporter, Thailand, is facing major losses to its next crop of rice and a water crisis because of the worst drought in nearly two decades.

Thai Rice Mills Association president Chanchai Rakthananon said on Tuesday that rice output for the next crop cycle, ending in August, could fall to as little as 2 million tonnes from a previously forecast 5 million tonnes.

“It didn’t rain when it needed to rain,” Thai Meteorological Department director-general Angsumal Sunalai said. He blamed global climate change for the problem.

Chalit Damroengsak, director general of the Royal Irrigation Department, said there would normally be three to four monsoon storms a year during the annual rainy season, “but farmers will be lucky if there is one this year.”

Thailand produces about 20 million tonnes of rice annually in two to four crop cycles, exporting about 9 million tonnes and consuming the same amount.

The government keeps a rice reserve of about 10 percent of output, mostly as a way of stabilizing prices, so the drought won’t cause food shortages.

However, Thailand will face a water crisis if reserves are not refilled and demand for water continues to soar, said Chalit, who explained that the agricultural sector consumes 70 percent of the nation’s water supply, while human consumption accounts for only 4 percent.

Water levels in medium to large size reservoirs nationwide are at 15 percent of total capacity. In some regions, local officials have asked farmers to postpone rice planting by one month for fear of depleting the reserves.

The Meteorological Department predicts heavy rain for the next three months, but that poses more of a problem than a solution for rice farmers, because flash floods can wipe out planted seedlings.

Farmers feel squeezed. In the northeastern province of Si Sa Ket, Jundang Rintorn and her family sowed seeds in their tiny rice ­paddies on Sunday.

“Too much rain would mean losing money. We have to learn to adapt to this new pattern,” said Jundang, 46, speaking of the irregular weather. “It’s so different from when I was young.”

Although the government implemented a price guarantee scheme in May to insure farmers against prices falling below a minimum, profit margins are shrinking because of higher production costs.

At a meeting of his Cabinet on Tuesday, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva asked the Agriculture Ministry to investigate ways to avoid the drought-induced problems next year.

Lower Thai rice production could have an impact on the world price of the staple, said Rex Estoperes, a spokesman for the National Food Authority of the Philippines, which is the world’s biggest rice importer.

But it “was not a major concern” for the supply of rice to the Philippines, which imports about 10 percent of its annual domestic consumption from seven countries, now led by Vietnam, he said.

“We have other choices,” Estoperes said.

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