Monday, March 23, 2009

Thailand's increasing shortage of water

What a world it would be without water

Many of Thailand's exports are heavily dependent on water, a commodity increasingly in short supply.

By: KAMOL HENGKIETISAK
Published: 21/03/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News

Unesco's "Water in a Changing World" report points to the likelihood of water shortages worldwide in the near future, said Varakorn Samkoses, writing for Matichon.

A water buffalo drinks from a dried-up irrigation canal in Ayutthaya’s Bang Ban district. There is a growing urgency to use our water resources more wisely.

About 97.5% of global water is sea water. The remaining 2.5% is fresh water, and two thirds of this is solid ice. The liquid water is mostly underground. Water on the surface in streams, rivers and canals is very little in comparison.

Since fresh supplies are limited, fighting for access to water has a history dating back to ancient times. The word "river" comes from the Greek word "ribalis", meaning "rival". Today, water is a subject of contention in many regions including Darfur in Sudan and in the Middle East, between Israel and its neighbours.

The Unesco report says about 1.3 billion people lack potable water. About 27 million people die from water-borne diseases every year or almost one person every second.

The report points out that by 2030, or about 21 years from now, if there are no drastic changes to tackle water shortages, about half of the world's population will live in a perpetual need of clean water.

The main factors contributing to acute water shortages are:

1. The rising population. It is expected the world's population will rise from 6.7 billion today to 9.1 billion in 2050, especially in developing countries in Africa and the Middle East, which already face water shortages. The population rise means a need for more water. It is estimated fresh water needs will rise by about 64 million cubic metres every year.

2. Rural migration to cities. Urban people consume more meat products, which means more water to raise cattle and poultry in comparison with farm products.

3. The increasing use of biofuels as alternative energy means that more water is needed because maize and sugarcane, used as raw material to produce ethanol, need a lot of water for cultivation. It is estimated that for every litre of ethanol, there is a need for 2,500 litres of water.

4. No political commitment. No small or large countries or international organisations have concrete plans to tackle water shortages.

5. Lack of effective water management. There is inadequate investment in finding and maintaining water resources.

The lack of water resources in poor, developing countries is intensifying the already chronic problems of poor health, toxic environment and political conflicts. People in poor countries face increasing risks daily from water-borne diseases.

Varakorn pointed out the concept of virtual water, which is lost through exporting farm products, since farm products need a lot of water to grow. Those who buy farm products from producing countries also benefit from "virtual water" from those countries.

Japan imports a lot of farm products and meat each year. It is estimated it consumes about 64,000 tonnes of "virtual water" a year. If Japan were to produce all farm products and raise cattle itself for domestic consumption, the country would surely face water shortages.

Thailand is a leading exporter of farm products to the world. It needs a lot of water each year in its effort to become the "Kitchen to the World". The country faces water shortages every year. If Thailand did not produce so much for export, it should have enough water for its present and future needs.

There is one bright aspect to this issue. There are increasing efforts to distil fresh water from sea water using modern filtering technology. Several countries are distilling fresh water from sea water including Israel, Singapore, Australia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, China and India.

No matter how many new fresh water sources can be obtained, they can never be enough for all the world's population. The best practice is to use water economically for the most benefit. One must realise that fresh water comes at a cost. It is not or never will be free.

Tourism comes to the rescue

There are three ways to bring in precious foreign exchange in the era of globalisation - exports, investment and tourism - noted a Thai Rath writer.

The three pillars help support a country's economy. If one leg is impaired, the other two must shoulder a heavier burden.

Now that the world faces a great recession and Thailand's major trading partners such as the United States and Europe are tightening their belts and reducing their imports, Thailand cannot hope that exports will lift the country out of the economic recession.

Looking at the country itself, the writer noted that Thai people are friendly and there are many beautiful places that can attract foreign tourists. So the country can still rely on inbound tourism to help fight against the economic slowdown.

However, inbound tourism suffered great damage late last year when the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) seized and occupied both Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi airports for a week, stranding a lot of tourists and business travellers.

The adverse effects are still being felt as some tourists are suspicious of Thailand's political stability.

In the eyes of the world community, a country's international gateway should be secure and not an easy target for terrorists to inflict damage. But Thailand allowed the relatively docile PAD mob to seize Suvarnabhumi airport for a week. For this reason, several countries have issued warnings to their citizens to avoid travelling to Thailand unless necessary

Even though the political divisions in Thailand have lessened considerably, the world community remembers the picture of stranded tourists and visitors lying in the airport terminal waiting to leave the country, not knowing when that would be possible.

Such pictures will not fade from the memory easily, noted Thai Rath.

Tourism Minister Chumphol Silpa-archa, together with the governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and Thai ambassadors in Europe, decided to adopt a proactive strategy to court European tourists to again visit Thailand in large numbers. They are leading Thai tourism operators on road shows in Europe to promote understanding among European tour group operators. The main targets are Barcelona in Spain and Milan in Italy.

The two cities are targetted because for the past few years tourist numbers from these two countries have grown considerably.

Spain has about 46.15 million people with an average income of $30,504 in 2008. Two years ago, the Spanish government initiated a stimulus budget by reducing income and investment taxes. This restored the people's confidence in the economy, which grew 1.2% last year.

About 11.19 million Spaniards travelled abroad and 84,714 visited Thailand last year. The number may be modest when compared with the million Britons and Germans who visited Thailand last year. But the Spanish visitors were mostly high-class tourists who preferred to stay in 5-star hotels and spend a lot of money. They usually come in July and August, their summer holiday period and stay for about 14 days, spending about 3,758 baht a person a day, accounting for about 4.4 billion baht in revenue for the country.

This was good news as the July-August period is the low tourist season in Thailand when rainfalls are heavy. Other Europeans prefer to visit Thailand during the high season or winter time in the northern hemisphere.

However several negative factors last year, including political instability and oil prices peaking at $147 a barrel in July, which resulted in high ticket prices and package tour costs, depressed the number of Spanish arrivals.

This year, the TAT has set a target of 90,000 Spanish tourists, an increase of about 6,000 from 2008. The tourism authority has cooperated with hotels and Thai Airways International to offer "Value for Money" package tours.

Italy has 58.14 million people, 14 million of whom travelled outside the country last year. The average Italian income is $30,400 with GDP growth of -0.5% last year.

Italian tourists spent an average of 3,635 baht a day and altogether spent about 7.99 billion baht in Thailand last year.

Even though last year the economic situation in Italy was not so bright, Italian tourists came in fifth among European tourists, or 16th place among all nationalities.

For the first nine months of last year, there were 113,532 Italian tourists, a 10.97% decrease from the same period in 2007. This was due to the economic recession in Italy with up to 7.7% unemployment and over 4% inflation.

The economic situation in Italy has not improved much, especially in Rome which has a high unemployment rate. However, big northern cities such as Milan, Turin and Genoa are quite prosperous and people have high purchasing power. That's why the road show is held in Milan.

In the past, the Maldives was Thailand's main competitor for the tourist dollar from these three cities. However, the Maldives has a higher cost of living than Thailand, which made some Italian tourists shift their focus to Thailand once again.

Thai Rath wished the tourism road show in Italy and Spain success. But the Thai people must help in this regard, especially in trying to refrain from causing any more political disturbances.

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