Institutional change in the Thai Water Sector (2000-2020)

The study of Institutional change in the Thai Water Sector (2000-2020) was focused on the types of knowledge mobilized in the successive steps leading to the adoption of the law in 2019. Research built on extensive examination of official documents and media releases, as well as interviews of key resource persons in the water sector. It showed the fading role of international development banks explicit, notably ADB and World Bank. The influence of global models, buzzwords and dominant concepts was much more prominent until the mid 2000s, compared with the past 15 years, but some core principles like apex bodies, river basin management, Water user Groups and participatory management, user-pay and polluter-pay principles seem to be well established. Their local translation, however, just like IWRM in general (a worn-out but still ubiquitous reference), remains often cosmetic or superficial.

Unsurprisingly, water, politics and power appear to be intermingled. Whether relatively to flood or drought management (when specific constituencies face positive or negative externalities) or the planning of megaprojects (Water Grid, interbasin transfers, dams, flood protection works,…) decision-making power has clear political dimensions. Justification discourses and imaginaries mobilized by politicians clearly revolve around ideas of (water) security, meeting needs (supply orientation), or allowing economic development (whatever the cost): responses are couched in terms of money, technology and paternalist state interventions. The role of academics from various universities, public intellectuals, or professional associations also appeared to have been very present and quite influential in water policy debates. Many of these academics navigate political changes by keeping some distance from parties while some of them play a role of broker between the government agencies and either NGOs or private companies (national or foreign). They bring in policy debates a very technical/specialized viewpoint that occasionally but rarely challenges governance structures.

Monkey cheek policy in the Chao Phraya basin

Knowledge and policy relationships were also studied in the implementation of the ‘monkey cheek’ policy, a policy that aims at earmarking specific low-lying areas to divert floodwaters and reduce flood risk. It showed that the original concept  of buffering flood with retarding basins was used/misused to support projects that were sometimes at odds with the idea. The research also illustrated how the military government, resorting again to the concept in an attempt to find solutions to recurring damaging flooding in Ayutthaya Province, enforced a rigid system of water distribution schedules. The lack of overall knowledge in the cross-scale circulation and distribution of water with relation to rice cropping patterns and calendars created situations where resilience and flexibility in the face of ever changing flood patterns were undermined rather than enhanced.

This work also took place in the center part of the Chao Phraya Delta, north of Bangkok, related to the processes, perceptions, and consequences of the establishment of flood retention zones following the 2011 floods that struck Bangkok (whole report: Trakuldit, 2018 and related published paper Trakuldit and Faysse, 2019). This work was complemented by another thesis in 2019 (Voogd, 2019).

The Chao Phraya promenade project

In Bangkok, another research also investigated the various perceptions of the Chao Phraya river and how knowledge systems shaped the way the Chao Phraya River promenade project was conceived of, contested, and reshaped. The project proposes to build a 14 kilometer concrete walkway in the inner part of the capital, raising issues with regard to riparian communities’ relocation, the high cost of 8 billion baht, and the top-down conception of the project with minimal public participation. The design of the promenade tried to homogenize a riverbank that is heterogeneous and reflects its history of settlement and development. This reinvention of the riverside, as embodying the identity of Bangkok’s aquatic nature, was inspired by western/foreign imagery (Cheonggyecheon promenade in Seoul and Seine in Paris, for example) in a context where riverbanks still host stilt houses. The distinction between encroachers and rightful riparians posed the problem of multiple land tenure regimes in the cases of temple areas, royally-issued land titles, and the ambiguous frontier between land (private property) and water (public space).

The project also revealed interesting power relations between the various actors and their institutional brokers. Conflicting mandates among high-profile politicians who were both proponents of the project but also guardian of the historic heart of the city translated into the cancellation and reformulation of certain portions of the walkway. Pushed as a national priority during the temporary National Council for Peace and Order government, the project was pursued by the following elected government, thus prompting the civil society to contest the project and sue the government and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, both main proponents of the project. The controversy that grew alongside the project paved the way for the constitution of a Bangkok-based civil society which seeks to publicize issues of public space in the city and the lack of development vision for the Chao Phraya within the city planning. This study thus served as a window into processes of urban governance and the politics of decision-making in Bangkok city.

Agrarian changes and the future of farming in irrigated areas of Thailand

A third line of research concerned the possible evolutions of the Thai agricultural sector in irrigated areas. The research was conducted in the Upper Bang Pakong delta in Prachinburi Province and first consisted in characterizing agricultural systems in relation to water management dynamics (Aguilhon, 2017; and Phiboon et al., 2017 for a synthesis). Land use changes and their impacts on agricultural water requirements were assessed (report: Pannon, 2018).

As part of this study, a specific analysis was made of the vision that young people have of farming in general and of becoming a farmer (see Ruiz, 2018a for the whole report and Ruiz, 2018b for an executive summary). A key result of this study is that, although most young people are currently not involved in farming, 75% of them would actually be ready to become a farmer if some key constraints (access to capital, knowledge, etc.) were solved. A second study was conducted on young students of agricultural colleges and universities in Thailand. This study showed that many of these students were interested in becoming farmers, but they had to plan to work outside agriculture first for several years in order to gather the capital needed to start farming (summary: Filloux, 2018;  whole report, Filloux, 2019). A video on the vision of vocational agricultural students on becoming a farmer was also produced. This work has led to a mini-special issue in the Outlook on Agriculture journal (Ruiz-Salvago et al., 2019 ; Filloux et al., 2019; Phiboon et al., 2019; Faysse et al., 2019). Moreover, in order to support the exploration of possible pathways of changes for the farming systems, a study was undertaken on the new national programme to support transition toward organic rice farming in Thailand (Hérique, 2019).

From March 2018 to May 2019,  scenarios were designed about the likely and desirable trends in the coupled agricultural and water sectors by 2030 in the study area (see Phiboon et al., 2018). Trend analysis and scenario discussion opened the way to discuss multi-level initiatives that can lead to sustainable farming, and notably facilitate the involvement of a new generation in the agricultural sector, a challenge faced by all countries in South-East Asia. A series of workshops enabled to jointly define a vision for the agricultural sector by 2030 and a strategy to achieve this vision (Phiboon et al., 2019).