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Frustrated Thais work on flood management in legislative vacuum

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 4 Jun 2014 08:53 GMT
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Boats on the Tha Chin River in the central Thai province of Nakhon Pathom, where local people are working on their own flood management plan and finding innovative ways to use water hyacinth, a weed that is blocking water courses. TRF/Thin Lei Win
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NAKHON PATHOM, Thailand (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a blistering May afternoon, consultants hired by the Thai government unveil the next phase of a scheme aimed at preventing a repeat of Thailand’s 2011 floods, its worst in half a century. Yet the snazzy presentation fails to persuade local leaders and villagers from provinces west of the capital Bangkok.

They are unhappy with plans to dredge canals, as well as the focus on large infrastructure projects. What’s more, construction work that’s already finished was done without their knowledge or consent, they complain.

By the end of the four-hour session at the Nakhon Pathom office of the government’s irrigation department, which oversees water management in Thailand, the two dozen community representatives are frustrated and distrustful.

“If water overflows into farm land, what happens? If there’s damage, who will be responsible?” asks one community leader, voicing widespread scepticism in the room over the scheme’s effectiveness. Questions about flooding are on the mind of many as the monsoon season approaches.

Adding to the worry, Thailand’s political paralysis - following an army coup last month – has left in limbo a law that could help address water management problems exposed by the 2011 floods, such as the lack of a central agency to handle water resources.

Memories of those floods - which killed 800 people, affected nearly 14 million and disrupted global supply chains - loom large at the irrigation department meeting.

The floodwaters stayed for two months, local farmers lost most of their produce and the government provided minimal help, said Chutima Noinat of the Tha Chin People’s Council, a local civil society network named after a tributary of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River.

WATER LAW FROZEN

The integrated water law is now stuck with the Law Reform Commission of Thailand. Under the previous constitution, the final draft of the law could be proposed either to the government or parliament.

But those institutions were either swept away or are in disarray after the Thai army seized power on May 22, following nearly seven months of crippling anti-government protests. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have been dissolved.

Chutima is concerned the water law’s inevitable delay will allow authorities to push ahead with their controversial flood management plan. Supporters of the water law argue it would allow better governance of water resources, because its drafting involved many public hearings and it proposes decentralisation of water management to the local level. It may also call into question some of the large infrastructure projects that are part of the flood control scheme.

Critics say the 350-billion baht ($11 billion) flood management plan, which includes building reservoirs and other infrastructure to control water, is expensive, prone to corruption and biased towards protecting high-value economic assets.

It was suspended in June 2013 by a Thai court, which ordered the government to hold more public hearings. Its backers have now said they intend to submit the plan to the junta.

URBANISATION CHALLENGE

As in many of Thailand’s riverside communities, people in the Tha Chin River Basin are fighting multiple battles – against a changing climate, rapid urbanisation, a shift from agriculture to industry, and policies from Bangkok that they say sideline the needs of ordinary citizens.

The basin, a two-hour drive from the capital, is a flat, low-lying area crisscrossed with interlinked canals. The Tha Chin River is an important discharge route for the surplus water that threatens the Bangkok Metropolitan Area during the rainy season, experts say.

“The Tha Chin area used to be a floodplain and the floods every year brought in minerals for the rice farmers,” Chutima said.

“But now when the water comes, it just gets blocked because of the sluice gates and buildings. We think that goes against the natural ecosystem,” she said, adding that it produces a series of chain reactions.

Farmers are using more pesticides compared with before when the natural flow of water flushed out pests, and water hyacinth, an invasive species, is proliferating, according to Chutima.

This has lowered water quality, reducing yields of rice and the fruit for which Tha Chin is known, she said. As a result, struggling farmers are tempted to cash in on rising land prices fuelled by the expansion of commercial and residential activities from Bangkok.

As the area has urbanised rapidly, many canals and waterways have been built over or blocked. Where 15 years ago, orchards of pomelo - a crisp citrus fruit that is a symbol of Nakhon Pathom Province - bloomed, there is now a four-lane tarmac road, lined with office buildings, condominiums and shops.

Whether or not Tha Chin resists full urbanisation, water and flood management issues look set to become even more pressing in the future. Chutima, whose family fruit orchard was affected by the 2011 floods, said climate change has already arrived. “The weather is becoming more extreme,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

COMMUNITY-LED EFFORT

So far, the government’s flood management plan has raised the roads by 1 metre in parts of Nakhon Pathom district. Standing on a new road, lined with strings of small flags on both sides and the tar still glistening, Chutima pointed out how much higher the road is now compared to farms and homes, whose residents fear they will bear the brunt of future floods. 

“The government did not ask for people’s opinions, or inform them of what’s being done. It affects the people’s morale,” she said.  

The plan also provides for a flood protection zone, covering Bangkok and its vicinities to the east of Tha Chin River and the southern part of Pa Sak River in Ayutthaya. Many members of Tha Chin People’s Council, including Chutima and her colleague Walee Suadmalai, happen to live on the west side of the river, which falls outside the zone.

“There’s been no information whatsoever about compensation, or what measures people could take protect themselves,” Walee said. During the 2011 floods, the water lapped so close to her two-storey riverside home the family spent days fishing from their front porch.

Yet despite the massive political uncertainties facing Thailand, community members are not sitting idle, amid fears that climate change could worsen flooding in the future.

They are leading their own flood management effort, working with officials, academics and other networks, with help from international organisations such as The Asia Foundation.

Santi Nindang, programme officer for the foundation in Thailand, said the 2011 floods “highlighted underlying issues of the lack of equality, transparency and public participation in water management”.

In a country where national policies tend to be heavily centralised and top-down - and an overarching water management law is absent - empowering local community networks is important, he said.

Somchai Sitthisorn, a local official collaborating with The Asia Foundation on the Tha Chin basin initiative, agrees. “It works like a jigsaw puzzle - the little pieces, no matter how small, all contribute to the bigger picture, and have a great cumulative effect,” he said.

After years of monitoring local canals, Chutima’s group is working on improving water flows and water quality, finding new ways to eliminate water hyacinth, and raising community awareness of flood prevention measures and sustainable methods of producing food.

“I want to prove that people in the community can make a difference,” Chutima said. “I also want to change the attitude that if the state is not doing anything, there’s nothing to be done.”

This story is part of a series of articles, funded by the COMplus Alliance and the World Bank, looking at progress and challenges in developing nations’ efforts to legislate on climate change, ahead of the June 6-8 World Summit of Legislators in Mexico City, organised by the Global Legislators Organisation (GLOBE International).

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