Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Dry Season Blues

A watermelon farmer irrigates his field near Chiang Saen in Chiang Rai province.

I went to Chiang Rai province to photograph a drought that the newspapers in Bangkok have been  reporting on pretty breathlessly. The local media has been obsessed about the drought, reporting weekly about dropping water levels, the lack of rain and the potential for calamity. 

Bangkok has been dry. Very dry. It didn't rain at all, not once, in January or February. The latter half of December and the first half of March were dry. I'm comfortable saying we had no significant rain for three months. It is the dry season here, but even during the dry season here we see some rain. I can't remember a dry season this dry. 
A corn field near the Mekong River in Chiang Saen.

I've done a couple of stories around Bangkok about the unusually dry season. Farmers and others I talked to used the word "drought" when they described the situation so I was comfortable calling it a drought. 

I went to Chiang Rai province to photograph the drought because it's more rural than the areas around Bangkok I had photographed and the Mekong River, which flows to the South China Sea from its humble beginnings in the Himalaya Mountains, was reported to be very low. 

The Mekong is the lifeblood of northeast Thailand. Water from the river irrigates the fields and it's an aquatic superhighway of sorts, boats chug up and down river bringing Chinese goods to Thailand and the world while Thai goods, mostly food, are hauled upriver to Chinese markets. 

I did my research and based on what I read in the Bangkok media, the situation up north was pretty bad. I felt comfortable pitching a drought story to editors. Except that sometimes a drought isn't a drought. It's just the dry season. 

For reasons I don't understand, whether it's bad journalism in Bangkok or somebody hyping the situation in the north, I couldn't find a drought. I did find a lot of dry fields but then we get back to the  whole dry season thing. 

None of the farmers I talked to, and I talked to a lot of farmers, said this year's dry season is any worse than any other year's dry season. 
A farm worker measures out pesticides to apply to a corn field along the Mekong River. This part of the river front is a floodplain. It floods in September and is usually under water through the spring. 

One of the challenges of photographing a drought in Thailand is that "drought" is a relative term. The dictionary definition, "A long period of abnormally low rainfall, especially one that adversely affects growing or living conditions" has a fair amount of wiggle room. If you're in an arid place, like the American Great Plains or Australian Outback, a drought can mean cows dying in the pastures and the earth cracked and hardened like cement. 

If you're in a place like Thailand, which gets lots of rain, a drought doesn't look that different from normal, just less water.  That's the situation I ran into in Chiang Rai. It's dry, but it didn't seem much drier than normal. The farmers I talked to (through a translator) told me over and over again that so far it's been a normal dry season. 

The Mekong River was low and there were a lot of boats were tied up to the piers along the waterfront but stevedores and people who worked the waterfront said that it was normal for this time of year.
A worker paints a cargo boat on the riverbank. Like the corn field in the floodplain, this part of the riverfront is under water for more than half the year. 

About midway through my time in Chiang Rai, I realized I wasn't doing a drought story. Instead of a drought story I ended up working on a story about China's influence in northern Thailand and families that still make rattan mats the old way, by growing the reeds and then weaving the mats themselves. 
A Buddhist monk watches a fire set by a farmer burn near his temple.

There are more photos of the Chiang Rai dry season in my archive or available from ZUMA Press

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