Talking about Water on World Water Day: Sustainable Water Management in the Eastern Region 

“Water is life.”  Not only is water vital for animals and plants alike, it is also an important resource for the economy – ranging from agriculture, industry to service sectors as well as public utilities. Water is inextricably tied to people’s lives as well as to economic growth. 

The eastern region in Thailand is critical to the national economy, being the base for the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC).  It faces challenges related to water in all dimensions, from drought to flooding to wastewater.  In addition, another major challenge that has emerged is climate volatility.  Not being able to manage water will impact upon investor confidence, as well as quality of life.  

Effective water management is therefore crucial. How can we manage water within the framework of sustainable development, which will improve the quality of life of the people while maintaining balance with the ecology and environment, as well as generating income for the country as a whole?

Leading up to World Water Day on 22 March, the Eastern Economic Corridor Office (EECO) collaborated with the Snoh Unakul Foundation, Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI),  Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA) and the Sustainable Development and Sufficiency Economy Studies Center of the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) to organize the 2024 State of the Eastern Region Conference on the topic “Water Management and the Ecology of the Eastern Region” on 20 February 2024.

During the Conference, Dr Adis Israngkura (NIDA and TDRI) shared the recommendations from the “Eastern Region Sustainable Development Report” regarding water management. The Report was initiated by the Snoh Unakul Foundation to monitor change in the eastern region in terms of the environment, economy and society, and to convey results from a public survey of local people and stakeholders in the region.  Moderated by Dr Somkiat Tangkitvanich (President of TDRI),  discussants included Dr Nipon Poapongsakorn (TDRI), Dr Ditchapong Phoomikiatisak (GISTDA), Olarn Vesurai (Office of the National Water Resources) and Somchai Wangwattanapanich (Water and Environment Institute for Sustainability, Federation of Thai Industries).

Four key recommendations: new directions for government and sandbox for water management in EEC

The “Eastern Region Sustainable Development Report” identifies a range of problems in the eastern region including drought, flooding and wastewater. In normal circumstances, water management should rely on decentralized authority to river basin committees and local water organizations, by providing knowledge, skills and data related to water management.  In crisis mode, a centralized model of water management is needed, in order to ensure all water users are treated fairly during drought and flooding, both powerful stakeholders with economic clout as well as small local players.  This will lead to good governance in water management.

The Report proposed four key recommendations as follows.

(1) Shift the public sector’s focus to give more attention to managing demand and reducing the construction of new water reservoirs which requires tremendous budgetary investment and creates environmental impacts. Instead, the efficiency of existing water storage and irrigation systems should be improved. New innovations for water saving should be employed, including water recycling.  Moreover, water management for port and airport facilities should also be improved. Commercial water users should be responsible for the investment costs and other costs as stipulated by law.  Water fees should be levied to ensure efficient water usage.

(2)  Strengthen local capacity by enhancing human resources, knowledge and skills for water user organizations at all levels, including community leaders.  Under normal circumstances, communities should play a role in water allocation decisions and upkeeping water storage systems. There should be operating guidelines to ensure balanced and sustainable water management, along water databases. This will empower communities, cultivate their sense of ownership for their water resources in order to enhance accountability and help devise solutions to avoid water shortage.

(3) Implement an Integrated Area-based Water Resource Management (IWRM) system.  Currently, there are 43 organizations in 7 ministries responsible for water, making it difficult to manage water in an integrated fashion, since planning, budget, laws and responsibilities are dependent on the respective regulations of each ministry.  In order to overcome these sectoral silos, Integrated Area-based Water Resource Management is needed to tackle the problems of water shortage, flooding and wastewater in a holistic way, during both the dry and the rainy seasons. 

The Eastern Economic Corridor Office should serve as the central organization in utilizing a sandbox approach to pilot water management innovations under the authority of the Eastern Economic Corridor Act (2018). This mechanism will allow water management to align with sustainable development principles.

(4) Develop climate mitigation and adaptation plans to address climate change impacts including repeated flooding and drought due to changing rainfall patterns, which will wreak havoc for water users in industry, service and agriculture sectors. A policy ecology for sustainable water management is needed, alongside green space, afforestation and planting species that will help in water retention and local vitality. Technology R+D is needed for eco-friendly innovations to reduce water usage and greenhouse gas emissions in production and consumption.  Renewable energy should be promoted including solar energy, along with industries and transport systems which reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr Adis Israngkura (NIDA and TDRI) commented that for the past 50 – 80 years, the Thai government has been telling the story that due to increases in water demand, more reservoirs will have to be built to meet this demand, necessitating construction costs which is a huge budget burden. In the past, 90% of the budget related to water was used for construction. Therefore, the government sector needs to change its way of thinking. Instead of accelerating the supply side, let’s work on the demand side by increasing water use efficiency. In addition, in terms of developing various reservoirs, we should consider value for money, not just the financial value alone. Environmental costs must be taken into account. We should also collect water fees, by requiring those who benefit to be responsible, rather than being a burden on the national budget.

Dr Adis noted further, “On the issue of preparing climate action plans, especially in promoting alternative energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Secretary-General of the EEC has explained that they are making strides towards RE100 (100 percent renewable energy).  I personally want the eastern region to be like a pilot, where the Ministry of Energy can see that RE100 can actually be implemented.  Right now the country’s problem is that it still wants to sell electricity that comes from fossil fuels, so there has not been much effort on RE100 yet. But in the eastern region, there is pressure from foreign investors who want RE100. If we can make this area RE100, Thai people all over the country will applaud.”

Severe drought forecast in the next 10 years, demand outstrips supply by five-fold

Dr Ditchapong Phoomikiatisak (GISTDA) said that in forecasting whether the eastern region will have enough water or not in the future will need to consider the issue of climate change. According to predictions, in the next 10 years or around 2037, there will be more water shortage areas, especially during the dry season between January and May when there will be very severe water shortage. The demand for water will be 5 times greater than the available water supply, so the big challenge is how to ensure adequate water supply in the future.

16 water projects to be implemented in the EEC, ONWR ready to intervene in industrial water use

Olarn Vesurai (ONWR) spoke about water management plans from the government perspective, explaining that the overall water demand of the eastern region is currently at 2,400 million cubic meters per year and is estimated at 3,000 million cubic meters per year in the future. Water availability is estimated at approximately 2,500 million cubic meters per year. The overall numbers seem to be balanced, but when disaggregated, it turns out that the area that is most imbalanced in terms of supply and demand is Chonburi province. The government views water management based on a three-pillar structure, with the first pillar being the law or the Water Resources Act 2018, which in section 4 concerns water allocation and water use. Last January, ministerial regulations were published in the Royal Gazette which regulate each type of water usage and determine water fees for industry, tourism, electric power production, water supply, including large businesses that require large amounts of water and may cause impacts across the river basin or covering a wide area. This is now moving forward at full speed and is expected to be an effective tool that will increase the efficiency of water use.

The second pillar are the water management organizations: the National Water Resources Committee at the national level, the River Basin Committee at the river basin level, and water user organizations at the local level.  At the local level, the government expects they will play a role in analyzing the problems within the area and proposing solutions, including community-based water management. The third pillar is the revised 20-year water management master plan, which has important new provisions regarding climate change, nature-based solutions and ecosystem-based adaptation.        

Mr. Olarn noted that the EEC area still needs further investment, with the government’s plans aiming to guarantee stability and investor confidence. The development of water sources to support the EEC area in 2020 – 2037 includes 38 projects with a budget of over 55,000 million baht. A total of 22 projects have already been implemented, with 16 projects still to go. In terms of sustainable water management, he also agreed that building dams is not always the answer. Rather, we also need to look into other upstream water storage sources and other mechanisms for storing water that will solve both drought and flood problems.

“Our approach to sustainable water resources management is integrated water resources management. There is a plan to prevent drought and flooding. There is an effective master plan implemented by the River Basin Committees. And what is very important is the concrete management of water needs by setting clear targets, criteria for water diversion and efficient water use, especially in terms of adding water to Bang Phra Reservoir. Moreover, we need to be ready to upgrade infrastructure development in important areas to build confidence, by taking into consideration two aspects: the need for investment and conservation areas,” Mr Olarn further stated.

3 differences in eastern region water management, EEC sandbox as the way out to solve flood-drought problems

Dr Nipon Poapongsakorn (TDRI) pointed out that the water management system in the EEC area and the eastern region is different from other areas in 3 ways. First, there are private companies monopolizing the wholesale of water (wholesalers) with the industrial sector having the right to allocate untreated water from various reservoirs of the Royal Irrigation Department. Currently, there are 2 companies managing wholesale water. Second, water is diverted to the EEC from areas, such as the water pipeline from the Chao Phraya Pa Sak basin (Khlong Phra Ong Chaiyanuchit) to Bang Phra Reservoir, which benefits the regional gross product (GRP) of the eastern region, but affects the GRP of the central region, which has reduced water storage. Third, distribution of untreated irrigation water through water pipes for agriculture in many subdistrict administrative organizations in Rayong province, such as Thung Khwai Kin Sub-district. The water delivery fee is collected by the Subdistrict Administrative Organization and water user groups. This is considered a good management practice that can help save water in the future.

Dr. Nipon stated that there are many gaps in water resource management in Thailand, such as disruptions in the implementation of target plans, overlapping laws and incomplete enactment of secondary legislation, resulting in limitations in terms of implementation. The main water organizations stipulated by law have not yet been fully established. Projects are not integrated, with a large number of projects being proposed. IT systems and data linkage are lacking to support the committees’ work at both the basin and provincial levels. There is also an issue with the status of various agencies, in which some agencies are both service providers and regulatory agencies. Furthermore, there is no integrated spatial water management or Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM) and failure to implement water plans in the basins and to integrate budgets. The Thai Water Plan should be used as the basis for more effective integration. In addition, regulations for water allocation between various economic sectors should be established between water users upstream, midstream, downstream, as well as between basins using a quota system to exchange water resource rights. Lastly, the announcement of ministerial regulations regarding water diversion in the eastern region should be accelerated.        

“New tools are needed to do these things. An Intelligence Unit should be set up within the EEC Office by increasing qualified personnel. Both price and non-price mechanisms should be used to provide motivation and pressure on all sectors to seek out technology for efficient water use.  We should find a way to establish a Water Resource Fund for the EEC or for the eastern region without having to enacting new laws. Regulations should be drawn up to govern the two wholesalers that provide industrial water services and to allocate water in times of crisis to prevent conflicts,” Dr. Nipon stated.

Dr. Nipon endorsed the concept of a sandbox for integrated river basin management proposed by the Report. He noted that it would have a high chance of success if applied in the EEC because there are various relevant conditions. Special laws and budget are in place, and it is an area where there is a water crisis, with both drought and flooding on a regular basis. If successful, it will be an important model for the government to use in other problem areas.

Water problems cause investment to stall, prepare for “La Niña” at the end of 2024, EEC New Paradigm to use a lot of water

Somchai Wangwattanapanich (Water and Environment Institute for Sustainability, Federation of Thai Industries) noted the importance of the EEC area, which generates up to 2.4 trillion baht income per year across all sectors. Water shortage and problems with related ecosystems will cause a major impact and will affect the confidence of foreign investors. Statistics confirm that during the droughts in 2004, 2019, and 2020, foreign investment slowed down as investors were unsure whether there would be enough water to operate their businesses. He further explained that the private sector sees the importance of saving water, with the principle of 3R (Reduce-Reuse-Recycle) already being used in most sectors. They are ready to adopt any new technology as well. The concern is how to get all sectors to use water in accordance with the 3R principles to match efforts in the industrial sector, especially in the service and agricultural sectors.

Mr. Somchai sees that there is still a need for maintaining water reserves, until water demand can be managed to balance with the amount of water available. Although the recent El Niño phenomenon has caused the amount of rainfall to fluctuate by 30%, but the 20-year water plan has estimated fluctuation at only 10%, causing the water available to be 20% lower than the water demand. Therefore, it is not surprising that there will be a crisis during El Niño. With greater frequency being expected, this will create a huge challenge in the future. For the private sector, water footprints are estimated and water usage plans are planned year by year because the amount of water costs are not the same each year. Due to unseasonal rainfall like in 2004, Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate almost had to shut down because the rain was delayed for 2 weeks.

Mr. Somchai explained further that the EEC area has a strong War Room for water management, as well as crisis management which operates reasonably effectively. As for climate adaptation, he noted that the industrial sector already has Net Zero commitments in its plans and risk analyses to deal with crises when they occur.

“An urgent recommendation is to take care of the frequent transitions from El Niño to La Niña. Previously, we thought El Niño would last for a long time. But this year, the Meteorological Department has made a new forecast that from the end of this year, it will be La Niña with a lot of flooding. The water situation will be very volatile, because there will be a large quantity of water each time and this will cause flooding in the community,” Mr. Somchai stated.

Mr Somchai urged that the development of water resources should be expedited in accordance with the 20-year master plan to support the increasing demand for water in the EEC.  For the EEC New Paradigm, which focused on high-technology industries, it appears that producing electronic chips or producing EVs uses twice as much water as the refinery and petrochemical industries. Therefore, we must hurry and prepare for the long term as well.

Finally, Dr. Chula Sukmanop, Secretary-General of the EECO, concurred that water is a big issue that must be well-managed. He noted further that water used in the EEC area is mainly from Chanthaburi. In the future, some parts of Chanthaburi province may become part of the EEC area. In any case, the proposals and opinions from the conference will be further considered in terms of their suitability.

Dr Somkiat Tangkitvanich (TDRI) concluded that the conference confirmed that there is currently sufficient water in the EEC area but challenges are increasing due to climate change coupled with the expansion of the industrial sector. Water allocation will cause more tension among various sectors, including agriculture, industry, and service sector, therefore, good management will be required. The conference has highlighted various areas of management, including existing mechanisms and laws.  But the challenge is how to transform these various tools and mechanisms and put them into practice, in order to create a learning area to address water problems in the EEC which could become a model for sustainable water management in Thailand in the future.

For further information, access the “Eastern Region Sustainable Development Report” regarding water management