Politics of the monsoon

8 March 2010

The North is disappearing under haze. Officials are pleading with hill farmers to start fewer fires, and the government is trying to persuade neighbouring countries to cooperate. The Mekong River is lower than most people can ever remember.

We can blame the Chinese dams, but ultimately the reason is less water. There is far less water in Thailand's major dams than is needed. For several months, officials have been pleading with farmers in the Chao Phya plain not to plant an off-season crop. From the Northeast there are reports of farmers fighting to control pumps and sluice-gates which deliver the diminishing trickle of water. The old bird rifles are coming out of store.

It's going to be a dry year. Possibly a very, very dry year. This has political implications.

The monsoon has always been fickle. By conventional belief, in every decade there are one or two years with too much water, and one or two with too little. But over recent decades the variability has become more critical. For the past 50 years, the average rainfall over Thailand has been on a slight trend of decline. In the last 30 or so years, the year-to-year fluctuations have been getting more wayward. More floods and more droughts. Probably both these trends are due to global warming. But there is a third element.

In some years, the air currents over the Pacific blow hot and dry, the El Nino effect, and in other years they are wet and cool, La Nina. Until 1980, this fluctuation did not seem to have any effect on Southeast Asia. The Nino/Nina difference did not correlate to the local rainfall. Since 1980, the effect has been strong and undeniable. The direction of Nino/Nina has a big impact on the amount of rain that falls on Thailand from August to October, the peak of the monsoon. The climatologists are not sure what changed but they suspect a current of air from the Pacific, known as the Walker effect, has shifted to flow over Southeast Asia in the middle of the year.

This is tending to make drought years drier and flood years wetter. In the past, if the hot season was unusually hot, the difference in temperature between air over the hot land and over the sea induced stronger storms, and so the monsoon was wetter. Since El Nino took over, this climatic form of poetic justice no longer works. A hot summer is more likely to be followed by a weak monsoon. In 1997 and 2002, Thailand had unusually bad droughts.

Both drought and flood have political consequences, but the consequences of drought are much more difficult to manage.

In a flood, claiming compensation under the government's relief schemes is relatively simple as a flooded field is stark and simple evidence. Though the farmer might lose the main crop, there's still a chance of a catch-crop when the waters fall. Defending against floods, and clearing up afterwards, keeps farmers busy. And while the farmers might be distressed, everybody else is happy. Households have lots of water. Industries have lots of water. Food prices tend to be low because the abundance of water benefits some farmers somewhere.

Droughts are different. No main crop and no alternatives. Lower returns to hunting and gathering because the forests are dry and the rivers low. More difficult to claim compensation because it's debatable whether a field is barren because it's unusable or just unused. More reason for envy because crop prices rise and the few farmers who have water will benefit enormously. Hence more conflict. Farmers don't fight among themselves to fend off a flood, but they do fight over the diminishing water in a drought. More importantly, drought makes everyone unhappy, and that increases the potential for conflict. In the last badly dry year of 2002, the Eastern Seaboard ran out of water, industries screamed in complaint, government scrambled to pacify them by diverting supplies from local communities, and the local communities unsurprisingly screamed in complaint too.

Finally, in a drought year, the afflicted farmers have a lot of time on their hands. Much of that time will be used looking for alternative work. But for the last two decades the dry years have been the times when farmers have both the time and the anger to complain. A few years ago, those complaints were mostly voiced through rallies and marches. But more recently the politics have become much more sophisticated and subtle.

Despite the hoo-hah over court judgements, mass rallies, no-confidence motions, bomb incidents, and the perennial rumours of a coup, key to Thai politics now is that there has to be a general election by the end of next year. The Democrats say publicly that they think they can win. They place their hopes on an upturn in the economy, and some goodwill from their lavish spending. They hope Newin will fragment the Thaksinite phalanx in the Northeast. But all these hopes are hostage to El Nino and the monsoon.

The red areas in the upper North and Northeast will be worst hit by the drought. There is zero chance of the Democrats or Newin gaining much support there. The simple electoral arithmetic is that the Democrats have to win a lot more seats in the rice-growing heartland of the Central region and lower North. Their prospects of doing so are falling with the water levels.

Farmers tend to see the Democrats as an urban party, little interested in their needs. The last big wave of rural protests came during Chuan II in 1998-99, and left the farmers with no reason to view the Democrats as sympathetic. The red orators regularly repeat that government has become less effective generally since Thaksin left, and dramatically less effective for the rural areas. This argument is getting played back by ordinary people because it has a ring of truth. Expect this argument to become louder and louder as the fields crack and the dams run dry.