PRATHUM THANI, Thailand(AP) -- Thailand has reached the threshold of economic recovery only to find itself on the brink of another calamity -- drought.
Thailand faces its worst dry season in decades. Across the country, irrigation canals are drying up, crops are shriveling, and the parched earth of the countryside is crumbling away. In the cities, people have been urged to cut down sharply on water use. In some areas, water restrictions have been imposed.
In citrus-growing areas outside the capital, 12 miles of roads built beside irrigation canals have collapsed as farmers drain channels, leaving the earthen embankments to become brittle and crumble away beneath the drum of traffic.
The orange planters of Prathum Thani say their only hope is to find enough water to keep the orange trees alive. They have already given up worrying about the yield in this year's crop.
``This year is the worst crisis for me so I only hope to pump enough water to keep my orange trees alive and enough water for my rice field for the next couple of months,'' said Sawai Ngernpotdaung, 60, who has about eight acres of rice and four of orange trees.
Thailand, which hopes this year to begin climbing out of its deepest recession in 50 years, relies on agriculture for 15 percent of its economic output. It blames the El Nino weather pattern that plagued Southeast Asia with drought and fire in 1997 and 1998 for the sorry state of its water reserves.
Even before 1999 dawned, the country's reservoirs had been drastically depleted, agriculture ministry officials said. National water reserves, held behind giant dams in the mountainous north, have fallen to 130 billion cubic feet from around 280 billion a year ago and 500 billion in 1996.
Prathum Thani's orange-growers say drought, a normal feature of the dry season in the first half of each year, has arrived early. Farmers are bracing for serious damage to their fruit. Many are panicking, pumping water too quickly from the area's 14 irrigation canals, and roads are collapsing as a result.
Officials say dozens of local people have been seen digging, building dykes, and pumping the last water from irrigation canals. Groundwater levels are falling.
``Farmers are rushing to pump water for their farms and this has caused large damage to the roads,'' a district official said as he watched farmers pump the canals dry. ``We are concerned violence will break out so we have to do our best to share and rotate the water supply.'' Local farmers say they have little choice but to take as much water as they can to save their orchards from drought.
``We are now facing a water crisis and I anticipate big damage to the fruit,'' Chao Prapasawat, headman of Nong Sau village and owner of an orange plantation, said as he supervised workers pumping water from a canal to his plantation. ``I make about $55,000 a year from my 20-acre orange plantation,'' he said.
Around 32,000 acres are planted with oranges in Nong Sau district, which grows up to 300 tons of oranges a year. Chao said the planters had suffered a severe water shortage six years ago when some 70 percent of the fruit was damaged.
Most years irrigation canals begin to run dry around March or April. ``But this year the canal has begun to dry in early January and by April the real disaster will come when I anticipate orange planters will go bankrupt,'' Chao said.
In 1994, when another drought hit the town, planters lost billions of dollars from damage to their fruit. But this time credit is about as scarce as rain.
``Then we survived and recovered because people did business with credit. But now, in the IMF era, farmers invest cash and the only way out is to commit suicide,'' Chao said.
The International Monetary Fund is leading a $17.2 billion bailout package for the Thai economy.
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