This week marks the 2016 Songkran, Thailand’s official new year. Songkran, a Sanskrit word meaning transformation or change, holds similar meaning to other New Year celebrations around the world. This is a time for rebirth and resolution, filled with excitement for what’s to come in the year ahead.
Water plays a major role during Songkran. Originally, Thais would pour cups of water over the hands and heads of neighbors and loved ones to symbolically wash away the past year and one’s sins. Today, water still plays a central part in the festivities, although I doubt the Buddhists who started the celebrations generations ago would recognize what Songkran has become.
Dubbed the world’s largest water fight, today’s Songkran involves throngs of half-naked tourists in a week-long hedonistic free for all. That’s at least the picture the media would have you believe. It’s also the picture I want you to have in mind, although traditional celebrations of course continue to take place throughout the country. Most of the focus now, however, is on central tourist hubs like Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Water guns, buckets, fire truck cannons and hoses pelt the passerby with gallons upon gallons of water. The Central World Department Store, located beneath downtown Bangkok’s elevated walkways, even hosts a water tunnel and 24-hour water filling stations.
Go a little further afield, beyond the 5 star hotels, infinity pools, and raucous nightclubs and you see a very different situation. Thailand, as well as the rest of the region, is in the throes of the worst drought in several decades. According to the Thai Irrigation Department, 27 of the country’s 76 provinces are impacted, with many major reservoirs below 50% of capacity. As Songkran began this year, the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation reported nearly 6% of Thai villages were suffering from water shortages.
As a result, the government is asking farmers to reduce their water use by 20%, and the National Water Board is instructing farmers to not use water for irrigation. In a country where 40% of the population works in agriculture, this can have wide ranging, and crippling, effects.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good water fight as much as they next person. The Thais, in particular, probably need this the most given their tenuous political situation over the past couple of years. At the end of the day though, this is a question of economics. Tourists equal more money, even if that money comes (temporarily) at the expense of the country’s farmers and environment.
This has been an ongoing issue for Thailand over the past several years, as drought continues to plague the country. Many officials, though, have noted the unenviable position they are in by saying that there would be riots in the streets should they cancel Songkran festivities. What about the inevitable riots in the streets, though, when farmers’ fields are dead, people are hungry, and the economy collapses?
The Government has done a bit to address the issue of water usage during Songkran. This year, they have cut the official festival down to three days instead of four, although this is unlikely to stop impromptu water gun matches. There will also be a 9 p.m. curfew on water fights. Estimates say that these measures will save 5 billion liters of water alone. This points to the scale of how much water the festivities use.
Even a tempered approach is unlikely to quell water use much during the festivities. What about other ways?
Although it sounds trite, in the case of Songkran a little effort could really go a long way.
For its part, China was able to reign in some of the negative effects traditional celebrations were having on the environment. This past year, Shanghai banned the use of fireworks in downtown areas during the Chinese New Year. These fireworks are largely to blame for skyrocketing pollution during the 14-day long celebrations. The result? Coupled with the potential for a fine and permanent entry on one’s criminal record, the Shanghainese were mostly compliant with the new regulations.
Although the situation in Thailand is much more nuanced, the example of China does show that sometimes the environment can win in a fight against economics.