Throughout South East Asia, Buddhist water festivals marking the traditional New Year have got under way.

As Songkran celebrations began in Bangkok, tourists and locals took part in mass water fights in the streets, armed with high-powered water pistols.

The role of water in the festival is to symbolise the washing away of past misfortune, but this year it comes as the wider region is grappling with the most severe drought seen in decades – leaving thousands with restricted access to water.

In the build-up to this three-day-long holiday, Thai authorities urged revellers to exercise restraint, avoiding the use of buckets and hoses out of consideration for those struggling with the drought.

A third of Thailand’s provinces have now been declared drought disaster areas, with those in the north, north east and central regions worst hit.

People and elephants splash each other with water during the celebration of the Songkran water festival in Thailand's Ayutthaya province

Celebrations for the Songkran water festival in Ayutthaya province

A number of the Kingdom’s largest reservoirs are now below 30% of their capacity, meaning restrictions have been put in place on the volume of tap water being released, and a ban in some areas on farmers pumping river water for their crops.

Narong Saithong, a rice farmer from the central Lop Buri province, told Sky News he had been unable to grow his crop for months.

His rice paddies, normally filled with water and carpeted in green, have been baked dry.

With 10 family members to provide for he is looking at other options, but is in serious trouble.

“We’ve suffered a lot. We can’t pay our debts. We are really struggling,” he said.

“We’re looking for new jobs or at least alternative crops to grow instead. But we haven’t found one yet.”

His situation is one example of that faced by thousands around the country.

Economists have predicted the drought could have a major impact on Thailand’s exports in the coming year, with rice and sugar-cane production badly affected.

Efforts to alleviate some of the hardship have included water truck deliveries to some remote areas by regional irrigation authorities.

A man walks on a dried up swamp in Ayutthaya

A man walks on a dried up swamp in Ayuttaya province

Thailand’s Royal Rainmaking airborne unit have also been sent into the skies in an effort to induce rain over reservoirs and major agricultural regions.

Their cloud-seeding operations involve releasing chemicals into existing clouds, in order to encourage them to rise and grow in size, before using ice to encourage rain to fall.

But despite working closely with meteorologists to determine the right weather conditions for the flights, the extended dry spell has been frustrating the pilots’ efforts.

At the Jiraprawat Royal air base in the drought-hit Nakhon Sawan province, pilot Suchet Pattanapanjakul told Sky News he and his team were desperate to help more.

“It’s so worrying when the weather isn’t right for flying … It’s a big problem for us, because it means we can’t target the right areas for rain. When we are in the sky, we must have clouds in the right positions.”

The severity of this year’s drought is thought to be the result of the global El Nino weather phenomenon, whereby warmer sea waters in the equatorial Pacific Ocean change normal temperature and rainfall patterns.

The impact of the drought has been felt in India as well as across South East Asia.