Country Water Actions

Country water actions are stories that showcase water reforms undertaken by individuals, communities, organizations, and governments in Asia-Pacific countries and elsewhere.

Thailand: Upstream, Downstream
August 2004

WATER - LIFEBLOOD OF THE LAND AND ITS PEOPLE On the banks of the Ping River, near the city of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, Buddhists celebrate the annual Thanksgiving ceremony. Their chant implores respect for all living things. They pray for harmony between people and the natural environment. With its source in the northern hills of Chiang Mai Province, the Ping is one of Thailand's important rivers. It is the largest tributary of the Chao Phraya, the country's main river basin. Traditionally, clean water was easy to find. People could grow crops all year round and people would provide water for all. Fish and vegetation were aplenty. Water gods and goddesses were revered and water festivals were celebrated. Water was the lifeblood of the land and its people. But whenever competition for scarce natural resources increases, traditional harmonies among communities and with nature prove fragile. The Ping River is no exception. Conflicts over water use between upstream and downstream communities intensified to the point that solutions had to be found. In 1999, the Upper Ping River Basin Committee was established as a forum for all stakeholders on the Ping to find common ground on sharing and protecting this vital river system. The dialogue has not been easy. RIVER IN DECLINE People have felt the undeniable changes in the river over the past five decades. Many farmers along the Ping no longer have enough water for their crops in the dry season. In the rainy season, there would be floods—quick floods and flash floods, which were absent in years past. After the floods, there would be a lot of deposition and siltation along the riverbanks. The Ping's course has narrowed from 200 meters to 50 meters, especially as land encroachers filled it with soil and debris to reclaim land from the river. Chemicals from cashcrop and fruit farms, and wastewater discharges from hotels and factories pollute the river. Conflicts over water use between hilltribe people, farmers, urban residents and tourist resort operators have also escalated.

UPSTREAM VS. DOWNSTREAM The Ping River is fed by hundreds of tributaries, which originate in the surrounding hills, where water begins its long journey to the lowlands, and eventually to the capital city of Bangkok and the Gulf of Thailand. One of those tributaries is the Mae Thachang, which originates in the hills of Doi Suthep. This high area is home to the Hmong, a tribal people who have lived there for generations. In recent times, the Hmong have begun farming the highlands intensively. Doi Suthep is an ecologically delicate region but the government allows its habitation because the Hmong are indigenous to the area. While tourism is a growing source of income for them, crops are still important and the gardens provide food for the village. Hmong villagers have a committee to oversee the water. At the source of the Mae Thachang River, water is plentiful. The Hmong have access to the river at its source and they are flourishing. But problems arise when the volume of water reaching the lowlands starts to decline. With livelihoods at stake, water conflicts are a sensitive and often emotional matter. Farmers downstream became angry that too much water was being diverted to the Hmong lychee orchards. The lowland farmers smashed the Hmong pipes, the Hmong retaliated, and the situation got violent. Finally, a meeting was called between the groups of people. The Hang Dong Water Sub-committee is part of the Upper Ping River Basin pilot initiative. The committee gives a forum for people to talk without resorting to violence. Through negotiations and compromise, the Hang Dong farmers and the Hmong hill tribe agreed on a method to share the water from the Mae Thachang. The compromise included the Hmong farmers reducing the diameters of their water pipers to reduce their water consumption, and instituting a schedule for water use.

RIVER UNDER PRESSURE Solving the water conflict between the upstream Hmong and the downstream farmers was an important step forward. However, between the mountain villages and the farms, there are other users competing for the waters of the Mae Thachang. Thailand is one of the world's top tourist destinations and tourism is very important to the national economy. Tourist operators argue that it attracts more investments and generates more revenue than agriculture. But the growing tourist industry is consuming large amounts of water. Holiday resorts on the lower mountain slopes divert water from the Mae Thachang before it reaches the rice and vegetable farms at Hang Dong. Some resorts may act responsibly by keeping the stream clear of debris and disposing of its water safely. But other resorts are not so careful, using large amounts of water and, in some cases, discharging sewage into the Mae Thachang. Problems of sharing water also occur in other tributaries of the Ping Basin north of Chiang Mai near the headwaters of the river. Traditional farmers of Ban Dong are concerned about a controversial government dam project in the region and it's potential impact on their way of life. While farmers worry that new dams will have a negative effect on their livelihood and traditional practices, for others the advantages of irrigation dams are clear. Arjit Suwanichwong, project manager of the Royal Irrigation Department, argues that dams create electricity, fish breeding areas, public recreational areas, flood protection, and can actually improve agriculture for certain areas. Meanwhile, forest clearance has dramatically reduced the ability of the forest to absorb water. Farming communities are having a tough time. Aware of these issues, and at times embroiled in the conflicts arising from growing pressure on available water, the government has adopted a new approach, establishing the Department of Water Resources and drafting policies to address water resource management. BALANCING ACT

As upstream inhabitants, the Hmong realize their responsibility to protect the watershed of the Mae Thachang, which is vital to the health of the Ping River. The government also is beginning to change the way it manages resources— from fragmented responsibilities of numerous departments to an integrated system of natural resource management. It takes much of communication, effort, and compromise for all stakeholders to work together, but the end result is healthy environments and communities. As Dr Wasan Jompakdee of the Ping River Conservation Project aptly describes, "if we maintain good forests, if we take good care of our environment, we would have enough for everyone. We would have enough water for agriculture. We would have enough resources for our living. I'm not going to stop people from using technology, or to have modern ways of life but this could go together in balance."

Up and down the Ping River, there is agreement on one thing - pressures of change are here and real and they have to be dealt with, involving all water users in the process. Through the Upper Ping River Basin Committee, the different communities of the Ping— local non-governmental organizations and government departments concerned with water resource management— have begun to work together to find a balance between conflicting demands for water. If this consultative process is successful, it could become a model for other areas. The various stakeholders have much to contribute to make it succeed. One strength is the strong tradition of cooperation among the farmers of the Ping.

__________________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in August 2004: http://www.adb.org/water/actions/THA/upstream_downstream.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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