Record-breaking temperatures, reduced rainfall and changes in the natural climate are set to damage Thailand’s economy and increase poverty, experts say.
Thailand is suffering from droughts caused by the El Niño weather event, which is drying up land for the growth of key crops in the country’s farmlands.
Rainfall in Thailand has been below average this year, with a 25% reduction nationwide up until July, according to the Thai Meteorological Department. It has forced the government to advise some farmers to switch to other crops that use less water if planting has not already begun.
“It was less rain in central Thailand for the past couple of months.
As [the World Meteorological Organization] said that July was the hottest July in history. But the hottest month of the year [for Thailand] is April,” said Chaowat Siwapornchai, a meteorologist in Bangkok.
“As a long-term trend, we continue facing rising temperatures combined this year with El Niño], which is developing the situation we are facing,” he added.
The La Niña phenomenon is the natural cooling of the water in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean. It occurs every few years yet affects weather changes worldwide. The El Niño pattern does the opposite, developing warm water, that brings drier weather and reduces rainfall, contributing to extreme hot weather in the Asia region. Extreme heat has also been common this year in India, China, Laos, Pakistan and Vietnam.
In a report published last month, the World Meteorological Organization said that El Niño conditions have developed in the Pacific for the first time in seven years, adding that there is a 90% probability El Niño will continue until the end of 2023. The report says there is almost a certainty the next five years will be the warmest on record, with one of the five years in that period being the warmest ever recorded.
But for Thailand, the Southeast Asian country has already experienced record-breaking temperatures earlier this year.
In April, the city of Tak recorded a highest-ever temperature of about 45.5 degrees Celsius. The same month saw Thailand’s heat index – which determines what the temperature feels like because of humidity – measure at a record 53.9 Celsius in the Chonburi province and the popular tourist island of Phuket.
The scorching temperatures also have forced Thai households to use more electricity, such as in air conditioning homes, causing power consumption to soar to record levels in April and May.
And last week, in the Korat area, water levels in the Lam Takhong Dam dropped to the point that a historic part of Thailand reappeared. The Thai-America Road, built and used during the Vietnam War and used by the U.S Air Force as a route to its base in Udon Thani, has re-emerged. The road is usually submerged under the dam waters, which have dropped to less than half of capacity, the Khaosod English newspaper reported.
Kiatanantha Lounkaew, an economic lecturer at the Thammasat University in Bangkok, says the droughts from El Niño will harm the economic livelihood of the Thai people.
“The key crops that could be affected are rice, corn, and sugar cane. The household incomes of those who cultivate these crops are low. Thus, this effect could result in persistent poverty. Impoverished households will not have sufficient resources to mitigate the effects of the drought,” he told VOA via email.
Data shows about 40% of Thai farmers live below the poverty line.
“Since these produce items are the main staple for Thai people and are used to feed farm animals, rising prices would be felt throughout the economy. As shown by past empirical evidence, there is a clear correlation between drought spells and inflation, especially food inflation. Those with low incomes will be more vulnerable to the effects, as about 50% to 70% of their monthly earnings are spent on food.”
Agriculture accounts for up to 9% of Thailand’s GDP. The country is the world’s second-largest rice exporter, and the third largest exporter of raw sugar. The industry employs about a third of Thailand’s labor force, including millions of farmers.
Following an economic decline during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second largest economy, has seen a rebound and 3.5% GDP growth was forecast for 2023.
Earlier in August, the Bank of Thailand’s policy committee warned the economy could shrink because of weather concerns and political uncertainty, Reuters reported.
Kiatanantha says the droughts could hamper Thailand’s agricultural competitiveness.
“In the long run, it will affect the competitiveness of Thailand’s agricultural sector. Agricultural households facing volatile income will find it hard to remain competitive, as doing so requires further investment to improve their yield and the quality of their produce.
“Additionally, such a prospect would ‘push’ people who are able to do so into other economic sectors. Changing the workforce composition will exert further downward pressure on the agricultural sector, ensuring regional and sectoral inequality,” Kiatanantha said.