Malaysia: Padi farmers hit hard by drought

ILI SHAZWANI New Straits Times 4 Sep 16;

EARLY this year, Perlis was hit by the El Nino phenomenon, resulting in the worst water crisis ever since 1993.
The prolonged dry and hot season had caused the water level at the state’s sole water reservoir, the Timah Tasoh Dam, to plunge below the critical level (26.5m), forcing the authorities to embark on a water rationing exercise in April.

This exercise involved 13,000 domestic users in the northern parts of the state, such as Kampung Melayu, Kampung Kolam, Kampung Kok Mak and Jalan Batu 16, who had to cope with water disruption for almost a month.

Even after the dry spell ended with heavy rain a few days a week, the water level at the dam rose only to 27.07m, with a storage balance of 44.9 per cent on Sept 1.

Perlis Irrigation and Drainage Department (DID) director Abdul Najib Abdullah said the water level was still low, which meant it was only sufficient for domestic use and, hence, the department had to postpone the release of water for irrigation purposes.

However, he said, the department as well as other agencies were looking into measures to overcome the water crisis, such as the construction of additional tube wells to prepare for next year’s dry spell.

“We have finished the construction of two additional tube wells at Sungai Jarum and Sungai Pelarit near the Timah Tasoh Dam, at an estimated cost of RM400,000.

“All that is left is the installation of pumps, which are expected to be ready in a month.

“With the additional tube wells, we can pump groundwater if the water level drops to 26m and channel it to the dam to cater to domestic and irrigation demands in the northern parts of the state,” he said.

The department is planning to build more tube wells in the state next year, depending on the allocation provided by the government.

Water operator Syarikat Air Perlis, like other agencies, depends on DID to ensure sufficient water supply in the dam for distribution to domestic users.

Its chief executive officer, Abd Hamid Saad, said one third of the water supply in Perlis, which is for the northern part, came from the Timah Tasoh Dam, while the remaining areas, such as Kangar and Arau, depended on the Pedu reservoir.

“There is nothing much we can do with regard to the water reserve in the dam, but on our part, we are increasing the number of static tanks and tanker lorries to supply clean water to residential areas, in the event of a water crisis in the future,” he said.

Hamid did not dismiss the possibility of water rationing exercises during the drought, if the water level at the Pedu Dam was no longer sufficient to meet the needs in the areas involved.

At present, the water reserve at the Pedu Dam reservoir stands at 49.2 per cent capacity, with a water level of 87.28m, 20.21m above the minimum level.

The water crisis did not affect only domestic users but also padi farmers, especially those outside the Muda Agriculture Development Authority (Mada) areas, as they have to depend on rainfall to start the crop planting process due to insufficient water supply at the reservoir for irrigation purposes.

State Agriculture Department director Zulkefli Amin Mat Jusoh said many padi farmers, who had padi fields covering 7,800ha, suffered losses this year as they could not proceed with the first planting season due to the prolonged drought.

He explained that the water in the dam could only be released to the padi fields outside the Mada areas across the state once the water supply reached an optimum level of 29m.

“Usually, there are two crop planting seasons in the state. The second season, which should be going through the ploughing process by now, is the main season.

“However, the inadequate amount of rainfall in certain areas had hindered some farmers from preparing their padi fields for the second planting season.

“This poses major problems because the delay could negatively impact the yields and economy of the farmers as well as the state,” he said.

For the time being, he said, the department was looking into other solutions to help the affected padi farmers, apart from the construction of tube wells.

Zulkefli said the department was discussing the potential of planting alternative crops, such as maize, outside of the padi season with relevant authorities and the farmers to cover the losses, should they experience the same difficulties next year.

He also expressed hope that Mada could expand its coverage in Perlis to address the water supply problems for irrigation.