PHAYA MENGRAI, Thailand—A severe drought caused by the El Niño weather system has inflamed water-linked problems across Southeast Asia in a region that hosts some of the world’s most fertile farmlands.
The water crisis, the worst in 60 years, has pit industrial-scale plantations against smallholders in Thailand. It has led to violent confrontations in the Philippines. Exacerbated brush fires in Indonesia that have created smog across Southeast Asia. And sparked Vietnamese and Thai rice shortages that have boosted prices 16% globally.
So, the stakes were higher than usual recently when Thailand’s crown prince watched as white-robed Brahmin priests conducted an ancient rite with a pair of sacred oxen, concluding that the rains will soon come. Immediate relief was hard to detect.
First observed by Peruvian fishermen in the 17th century, the weather pattern brings rain to the Pacific coast of the Americas and drought to Asia. This year the drought extended to Africa, prompting what the United Nations called a food crisis for millions of people. Many scientists warn that the impact of El Niño risks intensifying because of climate change and warming sea temperatures.
As the monthslong weather system subsides, the threat of a new one is rising. Some meteorologists say there is a 50% chance that a La Niña weather system will hit the region, bringing the opposite problem: torrential rains and flooding. Such an event in 2011 flooded large swaths of Thailand and hurt the rice harvest.
Meanwhile, Southeast Asia is reeling from El Niño.
In the Philippines last month, security forces shot dead three farmers who had joined protesters demanding that local authorities release more emergency rice stocks after drought ruined their crops.
In Vietnam, water levels have fallen so far in the Mekong River that salt water has intruded 37 miles inland, said Le Anh Tuan, a climatologist at Can Tho University, poisoning much of the rice-growing delta.
Vietnam pleaded with China to release more water from its dams on the Mekong, which feeds Vietnam’s rice-growing southern delta. China twice acquiesced. But Pianporn Deetes, an analyst at U.S.-based watchdog International Rivers, warns that there isn’t enough cross-border management of the Mekong to prevent conflicts in the future.
“The current crisis points to the critical need for a regional solution and approach to this shared river, one that is currently missing,” she said.
The same concerns are playing out on a more local level, too.
In Phaya Mengrai, on the heat-baked plain stretching out toward Thailand’s border with Laos, district chief Bhubesr Julayanont has been trying to keep the peace since the full impact of the drought began to be felt in January. He regularly visits potential flashpoints in the area, including a banana plantation started by Chinese-invested company Hongta International.
The company’s Thai adviser, Wiwat Hengnopparatkul, said it aims to export the fruit back to China, where, in addition to eating them, people often present bananas to the spirits of their ancestors at shrines in their homes. Similar plantations have spread across Laos in recent years, and northeast Thailand shares the same kind of soil, ideal for growing fruit for export.
But as the drought deepened, the plantation began pumping water from a nearby creek, infuriating local villagers. “We were left with just a few dirty puddles,” said one resident, Chamlong Phirangkham.
Mr. Bhubesr was in a dilemma. He wants to encourage investment. Large-scale commercial farming provides jobs and income for Phaya Mengrai, a dust-poor region of the country. “People should have a reasonable prospect of turning a profit if they invest here,” he said.
But he also felt obliged to defend local residents. So, as water levels dipped further, Mr. Bhubesr barred the company from tapping the creek as a local army commander deployed soldiers to help keep the peace.
Mr. Bhubesr still regularly inspects the area to make sure Hongta keeps away from the river, and to reassure Mr. Wiwat, who said over 80,000 banana plants have been lost already.
“It will rain in the next two or three days, I promise you. I even prayed to the spirit of King Mengrai,” Mr. Bhubesr told Mr. Wiwat one afternoon recently, invoking the founder of an ancient royal kingdom.
“Amen,” Mr. Wiwat replied, before slowly turning to inspect the banana plants wilting around them.