Water Champion

Water Champions initiate or implement water reforms in their chosen field, and are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries.

Sukontha Aekaraj Bang Pakong River Basin: Resolving Conflicts Through Dialogue
April 2007

By Maria Christina Dueñas Knowledge Management Officer ABOUT THE CHAMPION

Ms. Sukontha Aekaraj is the Director of the Foreign Relations Division in Thailand's Department of Water Resources, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Her work in the water sector began in 1997 with a stint at the Office of National Water Resources Committee (ONWRC). While there, she worked on the establishment of river basin committees (RBCs), and two pilots were set up in 1999. The RBCs were given the mandate to manage water resources at a river basin scale. ONWRC partnered with the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) shortly afterwards to establish RBCs throughout Thailand, but the partnership ended in 2002 when ONWRC joined with other agencies to form the Department of Water Resources. Since then, the Department of Water Resources has worked on establishing the rest of the RBCs. Despite various problems, Thailand now has 29 RBCs for its 25 river basins. Of the 29 RBCs, only one committee is headed by a private sector representative—the Bang Pakong River Basin Committee. The Bang Pakong River Basin is located in the eastern part of Thailand. Its catchment area, which is over 19,000 sq. km, is divided into 9 sub-basins. In 2003, with support from the Food and Agriculture Organization and United Nations Environment Programme, the Bang Pakong Dialogue was initiated to promote cooperation in water management among stakeholders. In 2004, the Asian Development Bank funded a pilot and demonstration activity designed to strengthen the Bang Pakong River Basin Committee's capacity to reduce conflicts, introduce water allocation, and promote integrated water resources management in the basin. Ms. Sukontha manages this project. The Bang Pakong Dialogue demonstrates how decisions on managing water resources in the river basin is arrived at and implemented with the active participation of local stakeholders. River basins throughout Thailand are now studying the Bang Pakong experience for insights applicable in their own setting.

What major challenges plague the Bang Pakong river basin? Each sub-basin has its own particular challenges depending on the space and stakeholders involved. But the common ones are also wide-ranging—from the deteriorating water ecosystem that directly affects the people's livelihood, to the lack of water supply for domestic use, to repeated floods, and polluted waters. Conflicts among water users constantly arise because of these challenges. How does the Bang Pakong River Basin Committee address these challenges? People participation is key to the operation of the Committee. Coordinators are identified within each subbasin, and they provide the bridge that allows the government and communities to design and implement appropriate solutions. At the grassroot level, the Committee challenges the people to find solutions to the issues. At the regional level, the Committee submits the river basin's projects for funding by the government or external sources. This process still needs to iron out some chinks but at the very least, the flow of funds from the central level to the river basin has started.

When the Committee was just starting, what issues affected its work the most? The Committee's mandate was confusing at the start. Thailand's river basin committees are essentially coordinating bodies, not operations entities. The members who thought that they could directly solve the basin's problems got frustrated when they realized that they had neither the authority nor the resources to do so. It took a while before the Committee grew into its role as orchestrator of programs or activities implemented by different agencies. Another barrier was the different, often opposing, perspectives of committee members. The Committee is composed of local administrative body representatives, water users, local NGOs, government officials, and private sector delegates. Not only do their knowledge and attitudes towards the problems and potential solutions vary, but they also sometimes distrust each other's interests and goals. A chairperson who hails from the private sector—a very unusual situation among Thailand's basin committees—was also not well accepted by Committee members from the government sector. Add to this the fact that representatives from water user groups or communities, while armed with the knowledge on the basin's problems and possible solutions, are often not articulate enough to air their views.

The Committee is still very young, though, so such challenges are to be expected. What is important is that the Committee has already started making progress in terms of reducing conflicts and balancing the needs of the different water users. How does the Committee manage the different views of its members? The members may have different backgrounds and perspectives, but compromising is very intrinsic to Thai culture. Beyond that, the Committee ensures that issues to be decided by the members are backed up by solid data generated from the government agencies and the people. How did the private sector chairperson overcome the initial opposition to him? The Committee chair, Mr. Chamroon Suaydee, is a restaurant owner and serves as president of the Prachinburi Tourist Club. He was elected chairperson of the Committee in 2003, two years after the BPRBC was first established. Since the government sector representatives initially didn’t accept his leadership, they often missed Committee meetings. But the chair has good relationships with various groups engaged in natural resources and environment conservation, plus he is genuinely interested in involving the grassroots in making decisions for the basin. Using these strengths, the chair initiated dialogues on the specific challenges and core stakeholders of the Bang Pakong river basin using past research and actual experiences of Committee members. The results were accepted by the government agencies operating at the basin, and the Committee now ensures that the activities of these agencies in response to the challenges are synchronized. What are the committee's most significant achievements so far? 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. I must say, however, that this is a very painstaking process that involves difficult changes in mindsets, behaviors, and trust levels, and entails trial and error efforts. The Bang Pakong Dialogue helped this process along by introducing many exercises that required collaborative efforts from the members, often leading to concrete actions that resolve a current issue in one of the sub-basins. Another promising achievement is the Committee's preparations to undertake water allocation as specified in Thailand's draft water law. For years, the Committee hasn't been able to do this because of inadequate infrastructure to control water flow in the river, and lack of coordination among the different agencies involved. But recent years have given the Committee some experience in terms of granting water use permits to industries, and the Bang Pakong Dialogue has offered various insights on the intricacies of water allocation.

Do you think other RBCs in Thailand can learn from the Bang Pakong experience? The Bang Pakong Dialogue helps bridge the gap between the government and the people, and creates an environment of working together through consultations and common directions. I think this is a good start for doing integrated water resources management. Now in Thailand, there are plans to learn from the experience and replicate it in the Northeast river basins and one of the river basins in the Central region. What key insights did you get from the Bang Pakong experience? I think it's important to find a champion —whether an individual or agency— who will catalyze actions for the basin. In the case of Bang Pakong, it was BPRBC chair Chamroon from the private sector who galvanized the Committee into action. It is also important to build the capacity of the RBC members to undertake Committee functions, especially conflict-riddled tasks such as water allocation. Continuous research on river basin management should also improve the RBO's performance. The policy on water resources management and RBO mandates should also be clear. And linkages between the RBO and the national level must be specified, particularly in terms of planning, orchestrating action, and flow of funds. Finally, behaviors and mindsets are important as they directly affect the decisions of the RBO members. Changes or compromises must be introduced to enable the Committee to make and implement a decision. RELATED LINKS
Country Water Action: Driving Change—The Bang Pakong River Basin Committee Experience Pilot and Demonstration Activity: Bang Pakong Dialogue Initiative

_____________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in April 2007: http://www.adb.org/Water/Champions/aekaraj.asp. The Water Champions series was developed to showcase individual leadership and initiative in implementing water sector reforms and good practices in Asia and the Pacific. The champions, representing ADB’s developing member countries, are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries or communities. The series is regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.