This technology could safeguard Thailand’s food and economy security

Songkran: A festival of Rice and Water

Songkran is one of Thailand’s most memorable festivals. The water festival is a big hit with both tourists and locals, as the country becomes a big water-gun fight for three days. But Thailand cherishes Songkran not just because it marks the start of a new year in the Thai calendar, but also because of something far more essential: the time for harvesting rice.

A significant portion of Thailand’s economy and labour force is linked to rice farming. In the first 11 months of November 2015, Thailand shipped out 8.6 million tonnes of rice, worth over US$4.1 billion. Though rice exports made up 1.3% of the GDP in 2014, Thailand retains the position of world’s largest exporter of rice for now, fending off competition from Vietnam and India.

However, due to severe droughts in the country, Thailand is cutting rice production by about 17% in 2016. As of mid-2015, there were still 960,000 hectares of land reserved for rice crops left barren. Rice yields remain the main source of income for farmers, as well as providing food for a majority of the population. A disruption to agricultural production would have severe effects on the economic and political health of the country. Climate change is expected to continue taking its toll on Thailand’s rice industry as well as global rice production. How can the country keep its rice harvests and economy thriving?

A Rice Bowl for the World

Rice is a staple part of the diet for nearly half of the seven billion people in the world, with more than 90% of the rice in the world being consumed in Asia. Global rice consumption is on an upward trend, rising by approximately 50 million tons to 450 million tons from 2000 to 2010, and is projected to grow alongside the rate of global population growth, with 2 billion additional mouths to feed by 2050.

Meeting the global demand for rice will be difficult with the encroaching effects of climate change. For rice harvests to be plentiful, farmers must irrigate them with the exact right amount of water, at the exact right time. Much like how growing children need plenty of food and vitamins to grow, the rice plants need to have plenty of water, and especially more during dry periods, in order to grow.

A sudden dip in rice production due to drought will not only impact Thailand, its people and its economy, but may also have effects around the world as well. How can we ensure food security for the people of Thailand and the world?

Fighting climate change with technology

Can technology help farmers secure the production of rice, even in times of drought? Researchers in Texas have built automated irrigation systems that water plants only as much as they need, when they need it, based on soil sensors that determine how dry the environment is. This will deliver twofold benefits: first, the systems will ensure the rice plants receive a sufficient amount of water, and secondly, by delivering water only when it is necessary, this conserves water and energy and prevents excessive watering or poor use of technology, which can be costly.

Automated irrigation systems and leverage systems such as Programmable Logic Controllers have already shown that they can greatly improve energy efficiency and reduce water consumption, ensuring that operational costs remain low while also eliminating wastage. A further improvement in costs for farmers comes from reducing the reliance on costly human labour, especially during peak periods, through the use of automated watering systems.

Today, sensor systems can easily be implemented to detect when to dispense water to the crops. Modern humidity sensors can be deployed to detect moisture levels to within an accuracy of 3%, ensuring fine control and precise monitoring of soil conditions. The input can be fed into temperature controllers, which can also receive data from temperature sensors to keep humidity within optimal levels. The output can then be provided to programmable sprinkler control system to dispense the right amount of water to the crops.

During the hot summer month of April, the three-day water-splashing festival of Songkran provides an avenue of fun and celebration for the locals, as well as offering respite from the tropical heat. Perhaps in the future, we will see farms in Thailand with automated systems to tackle the problems of climate change and sustain the growing global demand, yielding a bountiful harvest for the country and the world.

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