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Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.
Thailand: Water Management in Thailand - Learning from History
By Floyd Whaley Consultant A REGIONAL LEADER IN WATER RESOURCES MANAGEMENT Water has always been an important part of the life in Thailand. River festivals allow people to pay homage to the waterways they use daily, and important celebrations such as Songkran feature water as a key element. “Water and Thai people are very closely related,” said Dr. Apichart Anukulamrphai, President of the Water Resources Association in Thailand. Thailand’s rich historical relationship with water has evolved over the years into a dynamic program of Integrated Water Resources Management that is helping to re-define the perceptions of people in Southeast Asia toward their country’s water. “Thailand has established itself as a leader in water resource management,” said Wouter Lincklaen Arriens, Lead Water Resources Specialist for the Asian Development Bank. “Thailand’s water policy and procedures offer a useful example for other countries in the region.” A LONG HISTORY Thailand’s leadership in water management issues comes after centuries of involvement with the issue. Historically, Thai people have settled along rivers, according to Dr. Apichart. From the 13th to the 19th centuries, water was managed simply by moving people closer to or further away from water sources as was needed. People moved out of flood plains and moved into areas well suited for agriculture. In the 19 th century in Thailand, "water was viewed as belonging to the king, who distributed it on an as-needed basis through a government agency hence the name Royal Irrigation Department," according to the report, Thailand’s Water Vision: A Case Study. “Most of the early water management effort was canal digging (for example, the Rangsit canal network) and water regulation for agriculture and transportation,” the study noted. “As the population increased, the later efforts concentrated on building reservoirs and expanding irrigation areas,” the report stated. “During this period, water was still so plentiful that wastewater was sufficiently diluted and hence was not perceived as an issue. Irrigation and drainage were the main components of management.” In the early 20th century, there remained few government agencies involved in water management in Thailand. Principally, the task was left to the Royal Irrigation Department and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. In the early phases of water management in Thailand, canals were built not only for irrigation but also for transportation. The legacy of this vast man-made canal system can be seen throughout Thailand today. Despite modern mass transit systems, many people in Bangkok today still commute to work and school via canals that snake through the city and often bypass traffic jams. In the 1950s and 1960s, the country moved toward building very large water management projects. In 1964, the Bhumibol Dam and Hydropower Plant was built across the Ping River. The first hydropower dam in Thailand, and a prominent landmark today on the road between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the vast structure is capable of storing over 13 billion cubic meters of water. Other vast projects came online during the 1960s and 1970s. THE BEGINNINGS OF INTEGRATED WATER RESOURCES MANAGEMENT In the 1980s, the government found that large-scale water projects were not very efficient at distributing water over a wide area, and a new phase was entered for water management in the country. As the population increased, and people moved further from water sources, smaller irrigation projects were needed. With the assistance of experts from Bangkok’s Asian Institute of Technology, the government set up a smallscale water resource coordinating committee that for the first time established a procedure for asking villagers and sub-district leaders to make requests for water projects in their area. At first, there was significant resistance to this fledgling government decentralization process, according to Dr. Apichart, who helped to establish the committee.
“Some government officials said, ’These people have no knowledge, no technical background and you give them full authority to decide projects?’ ” recalled Dr. Apichart. “I said, ’Look, government officials have been doing this for so long. Why not for a change we let people in the area try? It is a process of teaching democracy and decentralization. It might not be as efficient as having government officials decide the projects, but sooner or later they will learn the process.” Under the program, villagers would propose a small project, such as a neighborhood pump, a small irrigation canal from a stream or a small reservoir. Villagers were encouraged to look first to projects that assisted with household water, second for backyard gardening, then for animals and fisheries, and lastly for agriculture because it is such a larger user of water. “We set good criteria to keep people from selfish usage of water and they learned,” recalled Apichart. Under the program, local villagers had to donate land for the project (so that projects would not be conceived purely out of desire to sell land to the government), and projects had to be completed in one year under a certain budget in order to discourage grandiose schemes. “We didn’t want them to dream up big projects,” said Apichart. “We just wanted them to come up with projects that served the needs of the people. We wanted the projects to be small and to be completed in a year.” These early attempts at taking a participatory approach toward water management continued into the 1990s, and laid the foundation for the landmark Integrated Water Resources Management program that Thailand enjoys today, said Dr. Apichart.
__________________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in February 2005: http://www.adb.org/water/actions/THA/learning -from-history.asp. The Country Water Action series was developed to showcase reforms and good practices in the water sector undertaken by ADB’s member countries. It offers a mix of experience and insights from projects funded by ADB and those undertaken directly by civil society, local governments, the private sector, media, and the academe. The Country Water Actions are regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.