Community participation in revising Thailand’s proposed flood prevention plans

18 December 2013 | Article

The Mekong Water Dialogues (MWD) project aims to improve water governance in the Mekong region. For this, community participation and involvement are imperative. The Thai government had decided to invest 350 billion Baht in a nationwide flood management scheme. This proposed plan followed after the damaging floods in 2011, which caused losses to the tune of $40 billion.

The flood management scheme had been widely critiqued by environmentalists and engineers alike. This resulted in the government suspending the scheme in July, until public hearings and health and environmental impact studies have been carried out. In this context, workshops have been undertaken to hear people’s concerns; with the collaborative effort of IUCN MWD’s Thailand component, the Law Reform Commission of Thailand, the NGO Assembly for the Protection of Environment and Natural Resources and the Asia Foundation. During the public hearing workshops held in seven provinces of Thailand, dialogues were conducted to better understand community voices in relation to the government’s proposed flood management strategies.

Large-scale development projects have the potential to impact livelihoods and the environment, so understanding their implications are important precedents to investment. Despite the negative impacts, seasonal flooding also has some positive effects. It brings water to the floodplains and paddy land, thereby providing silt and increasing soil fertility. This improves the quality and productivity of soil in the region. Flood control can change the natural system of checks and balances. With this in mind, there may be alternative ways for managing water resources.

The IUCN Viet Nam team was especially interested in understanding how communities can actively participate in a dialogue -process that can feed into government planning. On 13 November, three IUCN Viet Nam members came to Thailand to witness the community dialogue in Samut Songkhram Province. During this discussion, around 1,000 people had gathered to discuss module #5. This module aims to construct a floodway and flood-diversion channel to drain 1,500 cubic metres of water per second. With a valuation of 120 billion Baht, the objective of module #5 is to drain water from the upper part of the Chao Phraya Basin to the Meklong River Basin, so as to prevent seasonal flooding.

The Meklong River - situated in western Thailand - is home to three water ecosystems; saltwater, brackish water and freshwater. This region is famous for coconut plantations, pomelo, lychee and other crops. The ecosystem is important as it is a spawning ground for fish and is home to fishery and farming communities. Greater volumes of fresh water will adversely impact the ecosystem as certain marine creatures do not thrive in this environment.

The Thai government’s investment plan is driven by the goal to prevent seasonal floods. The members from IUCN Viet Nam mentioned similar challenges of seasonal flooding; in particular how local dyke-building is interfering with natural flood patterns in the Mekong delta. In the past, two rice crops were cultivated by the farmers. But due to increased demand, they started cultivating an additional crop, with the help of enclosing dykes. The use of pesticides and fertilisers have been increased because often the river sediment does not reach the fields. This has substantially driven up production costs, forcing cultivators to supplement their incomes to meet increasing expenses. Furthermore, if dykes break, it results in damages to the community and their crops. However, dykes do have some positive impacts, as they help to control seasonal floodwaters. The negative effects are that they force floodwaters into a narrower channel which increases their speed, causing greater erosion and flooding damage in the middle and lower delta. There are also few sediments carried with the water, resulting in decreased soil fertility.

Tawatchai Rattanasorn, Senior Programme Officer at IUCN Thailand, says “The MWD project strives to improve water governance and share learning outcomes in water management across the Mekong countries. Lessons on alternative water resource management plans have been internalised by both Thailand and Viet Nam. Like any other water infrastructural project, flood management schemes have to consider the criticality of the delta ecosystem.”

By Ria Sen