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: Empowering People - One River Basin at a Time
September 2004

THAILAND: A REGIONAL LEADER IN WATER RESOURCE MANAGEMENT Water has always been an important part of life in Thailand. River festivals allow people to pay homage to the waterways they use daily, and important celebrations 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 has established itself as a leader in pioneering a participatory approach to water resource management in river basins,” said Wouter Lincklaen Arriens, ADB’s Lead Water Resources Specialist. “Thailand’s water policy and procedures offer a useful example for other countries in the region.” Thailand’s leadership in water management 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. “Most of the early water management effort was canal digging (for example, the Rangsit canal network north of Bangkok) 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." START OF SOMETHING BIG In the early 20th century, few government agencies were 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, canals were built not only for irrigation but also for transportation. The legacy of this vast manmade 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 large water management projects. In 1964, the Bhumibol Dam and hydropower plant was built across the Ping River in northern Thailand. 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 million cubic meters of water. Other large projects came online during the 1960s and 1970s. EMPOWERING THE USERS - THINKING SMALL In the 1980s, a new phase was entered for water management in the country, according to Dr. Apichart. A greater emphasis was put on smaller irrigation projects. The government set up a small-scale 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. 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.

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“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 Thailand’s landmark integrated water resources management program today, said Dr. Apichart. CHARTER FOR CHANGE When Thailand’s new constitution took effect in 1997, it meant sweeping changes for many aspects of life in the country. In particular, the new charter embraced the concepts of participatory government and decentralization. Section 78 of the constitution states: “The State shall decentralize powers to localities for the purpose of independence and self-determination of local affairs...” In the area of water management, this offered the opportunity to institutionalize the bold experiments that Thailand had been taking in grassroots governance of water usage. “The challenge with the new constitution was to turn the words into action,” said Dr. Apichart Anukulamrphai, President of the Water Resources Association in Thailand. The new constitution coincided with a recognition that the country needed to move away from water resource development - or the focus on finding water - and into water resource management. With help from the Southeast Asia Technical Advisory Committee of the Global Water Partnership, Dr. Apichart began a national dialogue that he hoped would result in a Water Vision for the country that would lay the groundwork for making policy and on-the-ground decisions about water management in the country. A series of meetings across the country with water users from all sectors and levels of society brought out the problems and goals for water usage in Thailand. Water user groups, the government, including powerful agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and the media were included in the workshops to draft the language. “We didn’t want it to just be an academic exercise so we forwarded it to the Cabinet,” said Dr. Apichart. “We involved all the parties in the process, so when it went to the Cabinet it expressed the views of all of society, so they endorsed it.” The Cabinet approved it without changes and it became Thailand’s National Water Vision statement in 1997. LOOKING FORWARD - SETTING UP RBOs The Vision Statement reads: “By the year 2025, Thailand will have sufficient water of good quality for all users through efficient management and an organizational and legal system that will ensure equitable and sustainable use of water resources, with due consideration for the quality of life and the participation of all stakeholders.”

After the vision was drafted, the next challenge was to translate it into policy. The same group of between 120 and 150 people who helped draft the vision statement began translating it into a 9-point policy. That too was submitted to the Cabinet again and was approved in 2000. While working on the National Water Vision Statement and National Water Policy, the country’s National Water Resources Committee and others began work to establish river basin organizations (RBO). A pilot project, with assistance from ADB, began on the Upper Ping River in northern Thailand. Another pilot project was supported by the World Bank. The National Water Resources Committee looked at examples of river basin organizations in the United States, Australia and other countries around the world. They at first tried to replicate those models in Thailand but the conditions were far too different. “With these pilot programs, we were able to organize meetings to find out what was going on in the river basin,” said Dr. Apichart. “Stakeholders became very open and honest with us.” The stakeholders in the river basin noted that government officials dominated the river basin groups set up under the pilot program. Each time a meeting was held, different officials would attend, they said. After the complaints were received, the committees were changed. The structure of the organizations was arranged so that the government had 15 members, the stakeholders had 15 members, and the NGOs and academics had five members. This is how the 29 river basin committees in Thailand are currently structured. Another problem faced by the river basin organizations was that district officers were picking the stakeholder members of the committees. “These are not really our representatives,” the stakeholders told Dr. Apichart. “We want to select our own.” After that, reforms were put in place to see to it that stakeholders chose their own representatives. MAKING IWRM WORK “These changes came after we learned lessons from the pilot projects,” said Dr. Apichart. “This is how we figured out how to make it work. We decided to forget about foreign examples, and we started our own system.” Out of 29 river basin committees in Thailand, Dr. Apichart estimates that about 4 or 5 have very good organizations in place and about 4 or 5 are improving rapidly, while the others need more work. Dr. Apichart noted that the establishment of river basin organizations is a key part of the declaration at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002, for all nations to adopt an integrated water resources management plan by 2005. “IWRM is not a plan. It’s a process,” Dr. Apichart said. “It’s a management process where you slowly implement the main components. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle where you have to put different pieces into place one by one.” “It is a process and you have to implement it slowly,” he said. “It is a process of empowering people to participate.”

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