ASEAN Beat | Environment | Society | Southeast Asia

Thailand Confronts its Triple Disaster in 2020

The confluence of COVID, droughts, and raging forest fires have combined to produce a perfect storm of challenges for the government.

Erin Cook
Thailand Confronts its Triple Disaster in 2020
Credit: Flickr/Prachatai

This year was always going to be a tough one for Thailand, with the government led by Prayut Chan-o-cha trying to manage continuing political and economic challenges following last year’s contentious elections as well as rising domestic discontent that has rocked the country.

But 2020 has seen the concretization of what might be termed Thailand’s triple disaster. The combination of the global coronavirus pandemic, droughts, and choking fires have all combined to create a particularly difficult environment for the Thai government to navigate.

First, COVID-19 has hit the country hard. Though it arrived early in January, with Thailand recording the first known case outside of China, the government dithered in taking steps that would have restricted interactions with China, which contributed to the country becoming among those with the highest recorded cases in the region.

The economic fallout has been palpable. Tourism, a major sector that had already been dipping prior to the suspension of world travel, has been hit hard, while agriculture has been stressed with disruptions in exports. The political fallout could also be great, with COVID-19 only exacerbating the risk that domestic discontent against the Prayut government could lead to another round of political instability in the country.

Second, a devastating, country-wide drought has wreaked anxiety across the national economy. Prolonged droughts across the country had threatened economic disaster well before the emergence of the virus. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and his government had sounded the alarm throughout most of last year, including the promise of welfare payments and other forms of assistance for those employed in the agriculture sector. According to Mekong River Commission data published by Voice of America, last year’s monsoon season ended three weeks earlier than usual after starting late exacerbating dry conditions for farmers and stressing water capacity for households.

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But a new survey commissioned by the Lower Mekong Initiative and Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership suggests drought conditions could become significantly worse in the coming months as the upstream Mekong is dammed further. The study found that while Thailand and neighboring countries like Cambodia have struggled, the upstream Tibetan Plateau remains lush with capacity. “There was just a huge volume of water that was being held back in China,” co-author Alan Basist told the New York Times.

What impact this data — confirmation of what many reliant on the river for livelihoods no doubt already suspected — has on the future between Mekong states and China is a large question. But for Thailand in the immediate now, it will not be a relief to the dusty, dry agri-business downstream.

Third, choking fires to the north have left millions facing a series of health concerns and only increased the fracturing of trust between Thais living in the villages and cities of the north and leaders in Bangkok. Dry conditions in Northern Thailand are ripe for destructive forest fires around Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep mountain areas. Local authorities earlier this month ordered much of the forest areas closed to the public following the deaths of three villagers in three separate incidents. Air quality in the city and surrounds has been terrible, registering at “critical levels” across the North of the country for weeks.

Environment Minister Varawut Silpaarcha told reporters late last month that fires had been deliberately set, both by foragers and by others to cause “mayhem.” He also knocked back criticism that the government in Bangkok has largely been absent in the crisis. “To some it seems that we are doing nothing. But we have sent thousands of people to help firefighters in the north. However, the areas in which they are operating in are so large,” he said, as reported by The Bangkok Post.

Local villagers disagree. Representatives from communities within the mountains have told the Bangkok Post that they’ve been tasked with protecting the forests for years, even as the central government “points fingers” and blames those same communities. Another report suggests the number of lives lost in the recent blazes is higher than the official toll, with a reliance on traditional but dangerous back-burning techniques.

The drought, fires and the poor air quality it brings and now the pandemic are a perfect storm of a challenge for the Prayut government. They also disproportionately affect certain population segments regionally and economically, thereby increasing the risk of furthering divisions in the country. While the government has been eyeing several measures including expanding welfare and dispersing cash, it is unclear if these will be adequate to confront the triple disaster that is confronting Thailand in 2020.