Phuket’s water supply running on empty

On a tropical island where we’re surrounded by water, and with plenty of monsoonal rain falling on the island every year, it’s hard to imagine we could possibly be facing a water shortage. Especially after the crisis in March and April this year. But here we are.

In a ‘would-have-been-funny-if-it-wasn’t-true’ moment in April, the Phuket Water Authority announced water restrictions for the island one day (an odds and evens water usage schedule), only to reverse their decision the day after.

The water restrictions would have been draconian but, in hindsight, a responsible response to the problem. The reversal of the decision, and the lack of explanation, was a high water mark (pardon the pun) of local bureaucracy gone completely insane.

So, here we are, more hotel rooms available than ever, more developments completed and an island poised for, hopefully, an influx of tourists for the busiest time of the year. But we will start the high season with the lowest volume of water ever, when measured against the total expected demand.

Unless it randomly just starts raining every day, for a few months, the island will not be able to rely on our dams supplying us with water for the high season.

Last week an order from the National Office National Water Resources was directed at Phuket’s water tzars to take urgent action to fix the island’s water-supply saga.

But the angry finger waving from the capital comes half a year too late when the critical problem facing Phuket for the 2019/2020 high season had already been well recognised, and admitted, by officials from the Phuket Water Authority. Their hope that this wet-season rain would fill the empty dams has fallen short of expectations. In fact the island faces up to six months, probably a lot longer, of critical water shortages, until the 2020 wet season presumably arrives.

Phuket's water supply running on empty | News by Thaiger

Bang Wad Dam in Kathu, less than 30% capacity

When Phuket’s residents take to social media about their water supply being turned off, just switched off without any warning – that’s what happened in March and April this year – the blame will land firmly in the lap of the PWA.

When the local media is approached to stop ‘running down the island’ with stories about empty dams and expensive emergency supplies, we will direct them towards the PWA.

When local businesses and hotels have to order daily water deliveries at extortionate prices, send the bill to the PWA. But good luck with that!

The last minute directive to ‘sort things out’ is too little and too late. The local authorities’ understanding of the looming problem is well documented, in their own words, from earlier this year. It’s just that they’ve done nothing about it.

As the wet season winds down for 2019, the Office of National Water Resoures says that Bang Wad dam in Kathu, the island’s largest reservoir and supplier to Patong, is not even 30% full. Bang Neow Dam, servicing areas north of Heroines Monument, is visibly almost dry with an official level of 8.38% of capacity, 5% of which is unusable.

(Strangely, the new Blue Tree water park was able to fill up over the wet season this year, but not the nearby Bang Neow Dam)

All this happened under Phuket Governor Phakaphong Tavipatana’s watch. So far he’s left the water problem in the hands of the local water authority. But now the Office National Water Resources says that Governor Phakaphong will be held responsible for overseeing remedial plans so that Phuket residents and businesses don’t have to suffer prolonged months of critical water shortages.

Precisely what they could do, at this stage, hasn’t been explained. But expect more finger pointing and probably a few resignations. But little more.

The bottomline is that the local government will have to ship in water from north of the island. There is no time left for anything else. It’s too late to build more dams, or enlarge the ones we have. It’s too late to light incense and pray for rain. It’s too late to plan, budget for and build new water supply infrastructure.

At the height of the crisis earlier this year the Army was brought in to help with the delivery of water to some of the worst affected communities – the sort of thing you’d expect in a third-world country after a decade of drought.

But this is Phuket, Thailand’s shining beacon of tourism, the Pearl of the Andaman. Whilst bleating about the lack of tourists, and still unable to admit responsibility for last year’s sinking of the Phoenix (killing 47 Chinese tourists), Phuket’s nominated officials have botched the most basic of infrastructure – a supply of water.

At the height of the crisis back in March and April this year the Governor never acknowledged the complexity or severity of the problem and, as far as we can see, has done SFA about a ‘plan’ when the dams run dry.

If the odds/evens water restrictions had been rolled out in, say, February this year, there would have been an outcry of over-stepping the mark and imposing draconian measures. In hindsight it would have been a responsible action and we’d be in a much better situation now. The water restrictions should have then been followed by urgent consultation and planning to avoid a tropical island ever having to suffer the embarrassment of turning off the water supply to its residents ever again.

Call it climate change or just a really bad wet season, the heavy rain simply hasn’t arrived this year to raise the levels of the island’s dams. Anything that falls in the next few weeks will be a bonus but with the winds already swinging around to the north and east a few weeks ago, the monsoon has already run out of steam.

The joke over recent years was that, if you wanted to start a booming business in Phuket, open a 7Eleven and put a bus stop out the front (for the Chinese tour buses). Our recommendation is, now, to buy some water trucks and start shipping in water. Because the island IS going to need it – our current reserves will not last through the high season.

The Thaiger was cheeky enough to ask for a list of all the private owners of water trucks on the island. We admit our request was just a thinly-veiled allegation.

An answer has not yet been forthcoming.

Phuket's water supply running on empty | News by Thaiger

Phuket's water supply running on empty | News by Thaiger

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