Can Thailand manage its future water?

Sasja writes*

During the summer of 2020, Thailand experienced one if the worst droughts in 40 years, while floods at the end of that same year lead to at least eight districts of the Yala Province being underwater (Thai Enquirer). Thailand has issued a series of national plans over the past 50 years to tackle droughts, floods, and growing demand for water for agricultural and economic activities. Improvements have been made such has building up and expanding irrigation constructions, using water sources more efficiently, encouraging the involvement of the private sector, managing demand by taxing water, and switching from a project-based approach to a more centralized approach with more guidelines (and later switching to a project-to project approach again, as the top-down management proved unsuccessful). These steps have improved the situation, but national plans have not overcome demand growing with the economy and population or weak coordination between organizations (FAO).

Thailand recently implemented a 20-year masterplan for water management to resolve its chronic drought, flood and wastewater problems. The masterplan, which will focus on supplying clean water, solving floods, building dams and restoring watershed areas, is the one of four pillars. The remaining three consist of the Water Resources Act, reducing redundancy, and developing new ideas and technologies to address problems (Bangkok Post).

The government is willing to invest in good water management, but the Thai government must provide bigger budgets and improve communication between River Basin Committees (RBCs) and National Water Resource Committee (NWRC). Moreover, RBCs need clear directives and freedom from interference from national and local governments if they are to succeed at managing local waters. The roles and responsibilities of RBCs in relation to other agencies must be clarified. If these issues are tackled, the RBCs can benefit from the help and diversity of stakeholders in understanding and managing water issues.

Counterintuitively, it is also recommended to not have a holistic view of all natural resources. Instead, the focus should be on water, with the option to include other natural resources later in the process. Second, Integrated Water Management (IWRM) capacities need to also be strengthened at the Department of Water Resources and Ministry of National Resources and Environment. Third, priority basins need to integrate community activities and priorities with IWRM-driven investment projects (World Bank).

Bottom Line: Existing structures must be strengthened and given clear directives so they can support bottom-up cooperation with local communities.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “Can Thailand manage its future water?”

  1. Hi Sasja! This was really interesting to read – I didn’t know anything about Thai water management before and learned a lot. While not perfect, it seems like the Thai government is definitely moving in the right direction with planning and forward-thinking water management. I wonder about the fact that demand still outpaces supply though. Do you think that current taxation is adequate to address this, or that price hikes/other measures are needed?

    1. Hi Terra! Thank you for your comment. The residential sector is very subsidized in order to make water available for lower-income consumers too, but in reality it mostly benefits middle- and high-income consumers. The taxes are not nearly high enough to incentive residents to curb their demand and if water-prices truly reflected the value of water, the price would be doubled! Bangkok is also relatively prosperous, so especially here the unnecessarily cheap water takes a toll on the availability. The remaining two important sector are the agricultural sector, which produces many water-intensive crops, and the industrial industry, which produces a lot of wastewater, for which only recently a tariff has been implemented. Higher taxes for the agricultural sector ca be tricky though, as it is mostly poor small farmers produce the water-intensive crop rice.

      There is some debate on how pricing should work, but some form of water rights and more involvement of the private sector will be important.

  2. Hi Sasja,
    This was an interesting read as I had no idea just how many water related issues Thailand was facing. The country is dealing with water scarcity, but is also a beloved target of natural disasters. It seems encouraging to read that the Thai government has already improved greatly over the last 50 years and is now operating according to a 20 year masterplan. The willingness to invest is a good first step, but, like you, I cannot help but wonder if they are aware of the severity of the costs to make the plan succeed. You mention briefly that bottom-up cooperation with locals would be beneficial to help solve Bangkok’s water scarcity problem. In which instances concerning water scarcity in Bangkok is the local perspective actively omitted? And in which instances could local perspectives add a new viewpoint?

    1. Hi Amina, Thank you for your comment!
      While the costs are indeed high and often higher than originally planned, the Thai government recognizes the importance of this expense. There is also a financial incentive to increase the supply, as Thailand growing industry is dependent on it.
      As it is, water management is very centralizes, bureaucratic and lack of cooperation between the various organizations involved make policy inefficient. An example of policy which is well intentioned but falls flat in practice is cropping schedules: farmers do not follow them. If the farmers had influence on the policy being made, perhaps it would hold more legitimacy to them. Locals can provide knowledge of the specific situation in their region and the added benefit is that the locals in turn gain knowledge of the water-related problems their region faces. Involvement in the policy-making process and increased knowledge will make it more likely that there will a. be more policies that fit the region and; b. people are more likely to actually cooperate. Special interests groups representing the various sectors would also help as it would encourage them to cooperate rather than compete for the limited resource. The focus would lie on the common goal of ensuring their water supply by looking at the bigger picture and helping to prevent scarcity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *