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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: Driving Change—The Bang Pakong River Basin Committee Experience
By Maria Christina Duenas Knowledge Management Officer If there’s one truth the people along the Bang Pakong River Basin now believe, it’s that the piecemeal approach rarely works for the majority. They should know, too. For years, they watched how one group would solve their water problem only to the detriment of another group—usually downstream. It’s a classic case of needing to see the forest through the trees—also known as Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM). The new Bang Pakong River Basin Committee (BPRBC) found a way to do this, and with the private sector in an unusual, and sometimes uncomfortable but successful, role. Just how did the Committee get everyone along a notoriously conflicted river to sit down and play nice? MAKING MATTERS WORSE, BEFORE THEY GET BETTER In the Bang Pakong River, solutions have not always lived up to their intentions, sometimes causing more conflict than resolution. For example, in 1999, a barrage was built to keep out salt water. Its construction has been eroding the river bank and silting the water, though. And livelihoods have been drastically altered. “We make Thai sweets instead of fishing,” says Chawee Boonprom, one of the many fishermen forced to take odd jobs now that the river is polluted. “It pays very little money, but it’s better than doing nothing.” Even cultural traditions have been affected. “We have problems sailing our statue of Buddha along the river for people to pay tribute to,” says a local resident. More conflict has surfaced about 60 kilometers up from the barrage, where a canal slide gate is being blamed for polluting water downstream and damaging aquaculture. The gate opens every November to drain the river, which dries the rice fields for harvesting. Lining the canal, though, is a number of paper companies that people suspect are dumping their wastes in the river and killing the fish downstream. In November 2006, more than 80 million baht worth of dead fish were carted off. Unfortunately, the basin has become threatened by water pollution, frequent flooding, salt water intrusion and conflicts among agricultural, industrial, and household users. Conflicts over the different uses of the river have become more common with each day. Working piecemeal—roping in one set of stakeholders to resolve one burning issue at a given time—may produce a good solution. But, as the barrage experience proves, one solution may have unforeseen ripple effects, not all of them positive. This highlights the need to manage the basin’s resources in a more holistic manner. With assistance from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Bang Pakong River Basin Committee (BPRBC) decided to pursue integrated and participatory basin management. MAKING UNIQUENESS WORK To get to the bottom of all the conflicts arising on the Bang Pakong, the ADB offered technical assistance to the Bang Pakong River Basin Committee. The project was designed to upgrade the Committees awareness on basin issues and IWRM. Working from there, the Committee planned a series of multistakeholder dialogues. The success of these dialogues would be measured by their results, specifically, their ability to sustainably resolve conflicts for communities that would not adversely affect other communities. In an unprecedented move, the Committee elected a chair from the private sector—Mr. Chamroon Suaydee, restaurant owner and president of the Pranchunburi Province Tourist Club. Bang Pakong is the only one among 29 basin committees in Thailand with a chair from the private sector. At first, this didn’t work well for the Committee. Government representatives weren’t accustomed to ceding authority, and often refused to participate in the dialogues. On the other hand, this also seemed to be the magic wand for business and civil society representatives who, with their general distrust of centrally initiated projects, quickly jumped on board.
The chair persisted in bringing the different stakeholder groups for dialogues. “Chamroon mobilized his contacts in the private sector and civil society networks to get the dialogues started, and then brought the results to the government agencies, prompting them to take action,” says Sukontha Aekeraj, director of the Foreign Relations Division of the Department of Water Resources. Aekaraj manages the Committee’s project with ADB. Today, Committee members from the private sector are active custodians of the basin, often working side by side with community groups to serve as watchdogs of large companies and industries perceived as potential polluters of the river. CONFLICTS MEET THEIR SOLUTIONS Eventually, the Bang Pakong dialogue involved all the different users of the river— government agencies, businesses and industries, nongovernment organizations, and community groups, such as fishermen and farmers. More than 20 workshops and consultations have been convened since the start of the project. Many of these helped stakeholders understand the Committee’s mandate and learn IWRM principles and practices. Majority of the sessions, however, focused on understanding specific conflicts in the river basin, and finding solutions. For such sessions, the Committee deliberately leaves the agenda open so that the stakeholders can raise the issues paramount to them. This bottom-up approach has earned the trust of local stakeholders, and gave the BPRBC much needed inputs in terms of data and solutions. The Committee also pilot tested water use surveys in selected basin sub-districts. Not only did this strengthen its ability to undertake research about the people in the basin, but it also gave a voice to individual stakeholders. Data revealed a widespread misunderstanding over water issues at the community level. Despite that, the Committee now has a better understanding of what really drives water demand in the basin, and what development initiatives will be most useful in the coming years.
LIFE AFTER CONFLICT “The fact that the Committee gets the government sector, civil society, and communities to work together on a common project is already a big achievement,” says Aekaraj. The Committee is not resting on its recent laurels, though. Today, the Committee continues to pursue constant dialogue with stakeholders and is also gearing up for work beyond conflict resolution. In 2009, the Department of Water Resources once more sought funding from the PDA Facility to demonstrate participatory water allocation processes to inform the formulation of corresponding policies and guidelines. In this “after-care” PDA, the Committee is taking the lead in stimulating stakeholders’ participation in formulating a detailed policy, plan, and manual for effective water allocation in Bang Pakong. Related Links Water Champion: Sukontha Aekaraj—Bang Pakong River Basin: Resolving Conflicts Through Dialogue Pilot and Demonstration Activity: Bang Pakong Dialogue Initiative Pilot and Demonstration Activity : Stimulating Participatory Process for Water Allocation in Bang Pakong Country Water Action: Disputes Beneath the Surface of Bang Pakong
__________________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in April 2007: http://www.adb.org/Water/Actions/tha/driving-change-bangpakong.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.
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