Water is the lifeblood of agriculture. It has significant impacts on the livelihood of millions of Thai farmers. Early on in rainy season this year, farmers in the Central Plains suffered from one of the most intense droughts in the last five decades. Evidence shows that this year is one of the lowest rainfall years since 1970 due to the effects of El Nino. Apart from the devastating floods of 2011, this drought is another wake-up call for Thailand to take a more serious step toward an effective and sustainable water management system.
Normally, wet season rice crops rely primarily on rainfall, but with severe rainfall shortages this year, farmers had to turn to irrigated water which was in extremely limited supply. The situation worsened when the two largest reservoirs in the North (the Bhumibol and Sirikit dams) hit their second lowest water levels in the last 45 years, putting millions of rai of rice plantations at serious risk.
To quickly respond to the drought impacts, the government launched several temporary relief measures and initiated some medium-and long-term projects, but like previous administrations, the emphasis is being put on the structural aspect of water management.
In addition to Mother Nature, another main factor causing this critical drought situation was the poor management of irrigated water during the past three years. After the 2011 floods, water from key reservoirs was discharged excessively due to politicians’ flood phobia and the controversial paddy pledging policy was implemented, resulting in a surge in rice production and excessive use of irrigated water between 2012 and 2014.
Water management in the Chao Phraya River basin has been quite problematic. Surface water is scarce, yet considered an open access resource as agricultural water uses are almost free of charge. This led to excessive use of irrigated water.
With limited surface water supply, increases in water demand due to rapid economic development and urbanisation along the Chao Phraya River have caused many conflicts among water users in different areas.
Also, the current centralised water management system has shown numerous weaknesses. The water allocation processes are prone to political intervention and considered unfair and inefficient. Farmers can usually obtain more water by lobbying politicians in their provinces and it is impossible for the central government officers to monitor and prevent water theft.
Experience in some developed countries prove that water management decentralisation is the key to solving these problems.
Thailand has started building stepping stones toward a decentralised system but this has not yielded a definitive result. The first attempt was when the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) created 50,000 water user groups. A TDRI survey of water users shows that some of these groups can efficiently manage the scarce common resource by themselves, creating a more equitable, stable and adequate water supply for farmers’ crops.
Conflicts among farmers have been reduced and some groups have made the collective decision not to grow rice when there is drought to save enough water for the next crop season.
Yet the roles of these water user groups are still limited because they are not legally recognised and entitled to state funds. Their real function continues to focus primarily on water allocation management in their areas as waste water and flood management are fragmented in the hands of the local governments and some central government agencies. Moreover, water user groups have never formed a network to work with groups in other provinces along the same river basin.
The second attempt was when the river basin committees were established by the Department of Water Resource in 1998. But so far, the committees have not played any active role in shaping water management policy.
If the government is serious about water management reform, it has to urgently pass the water resource law which will vest power and assign legal functions to the water user groups and river basin committees. Above all, the committees must consist of water user groups’ representatives from both upstream and downstream of the same river basin to ensure participatory decision-making. This will essentially fill in the missing links in water management decentralisation efforts.
Water management is 95% practice and 5% theory, so it will work if, and only if, water users in the same river basin are given forums to work together to come up with productive collective actions. The goal towards sustainable and equitable decentralised water management will take years or decades to reach. That is why we need to begin our journey now.
Nipon Poapongsakorn, PhD, is the TDRI’s distinguished scholar. Nujpanit Narkpitaks is a TDRI researcher. Policy analyses from the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.
First published: Bangkok Post, August 19, 2015