Water management specialists talk about millions of cubic metres of water. I find it incredibly difficult to visualise these numbers in a way that feels "real" to me. So I started imagining a simple picture — a swimming pool.
And I imagined that pool is 1.5m deep. Then I imagined the swimming pool got bigger and bigger until it covered the whole of Thailand. All the water in that giant pool covering Thailand — that is how much rainfall we get on average every year.
Of course Thailand has a monsoon climate — we get a lot of rain in one half of the year and much less in the other half. Starting with an empty pool in January, we may be able to splash around a bit by May, but it won’t be deep enough to swim properly until July. This seasonal variation is normal. And annual variation is also normal and natural too. In some years the swimming pool will not fill up completely, and in some years it will overflow.
The first point to consider in terms of water management is that the natural cycle for these variations happens on a time scale quite different from the time frame of human experience. How often have we seen TV news reporters at a flood scene interviewing a senior citizen who says "I have lived here all of my life and never ever seen a flood like this before" — the implication being that this flood is somehow unnatural — and further this never seen before scale of event is caused by some abnormality such as climate change.
The reality could be that this size of flood happens naturally every 200 years — so of course no living person has seen it before. Climate change should not be made a scapegoat for floods such as those seen in Bangkok, when the very high amount of rainfall was still within the observed range for the last 100 years, and while political interference in timing of water releases from reservoirs had a major impact on the flooding.
The second point is that all our natural ecosystems, habitats and species, have evolved to be adapted to these monsoon conditions. For them the continuous cycle of natural floods and natural droughts is not a threat to be managed, but rather a necessity — a requirement enabling them to fulfill the different stages of their life cycle as nature intended. For example seasonal changes in water levels act as migration triggers for many fish, indicating time to move to a different part of the river for feeding or breeding.
Rice growing existed in Thailand for over 6,000 years without any large-scale water management, reflected in the well-know stone inscription, "This Sukhothai is good — in the fields there is rice, in the water there are fish". Fast forward to the last 200 years, two key events set in motion massive transformations — (1) the establishment of Bangkok as the new capital of Thailand — leading eventually to massive urban development on a swampy floodplain of soft recently deposited sediment; and (2) the signing of the Bowring Treaty allowing the export of rice to British colonies, eventually leading to Thailand becoming the world’s leading rice exporter.
That has brought us to where we are today — contemplating a copy2 billion (381 billion baht) investment package to keep Bangkok safe from floods while still investing ever more in new urban infrastructure (despite its high flood risk location on a natural floodplain and a sinking delta); and considering all sorts of ways to shore up barely profitable rice growing that requires ever more allocation of water for irrigation, when agriculture already uses 70% of our water but only contributes 10% to GDP.
It seems we have caught ourselves in a trap. Water and flood management priorities are held hostage to unsound urban development and unsustainable agriculture.
The next point is that the answers to water and flood management issues lie not within the water sector itself but more in the agriculture and urban development sectors. The policy decisions made here are the ones determining the options remaining in the water sector.
With flood management in Bangkok the emphasis to date has been on protection. However the adaptation mantra has three elements — protect, accommodate, retreat. Bangkok also needs to think of the "accommodate" and "retreat" aspects as well.
Lessons can be learned from around the world. Brisbane is developing a "flood-smart" city. The authorities recognise it is impossible to prevent all floods and are producing flood-risk maps and educating the population to (1) understand their own level of flood risk according to where their home is situated (2) understand what actions they can take to improve the flood-proofing of their home and (3) for those in high risk areas, government provides assistance for relocation to less risky areas.
In the UK, the government is providing a similar "carrot" encouraging people to move away from flood-prone areas, while a "stick" is provided by insurance companies who are unwilling to provide home insurance for houses in high-risk areas.
In terms of rice policy, the question really is "how much rice does Thailand want or need to grow?" Should Thailand continue to compete with Vietnam (and in future also with Myanmar), to be the world’s No.1 rice exporter? Why?
Second and third rice crops requiring expensive inputs while still profitable for traders and exporters are not very profitable for the farmers and also not kind to human and ecological health, while putting a big strain on our water resources.
A transition out of rice to other higher value and less water demanding crops makes sense for many farmers, but needs government support in policy reform, reorienting extension services, market support, and transforming rice subsidies.
Changing the current rice paradigm, and a more holistic Bangkok flood response can go a long way to achieving our goals of dealing with floods and droughts without massive additional investment in water infrastructure. It leaves us in a better position to sustainably manage the natural infrastructure of river basins and focus our efforts on management of watersheds and wetlands, ensuring vegetation cover in headwaters increases infiltration, reduces erosion, flash floods and landslide risk, while natural wetlands store excess flood water, recharge ground water and provide dry season water supplies.
Finally, while a National Master Plan is important, so is bottom-up planning with hundreds of thousands of small visions and plans starting from every micro-catchment, all being joined up all the way through to the river basin scale. 100,000 small ponds on farms throughout the landscape can store as much water as one big reservoir, while providing many additional local benefits. Returning to the swimming pool again, the floor of the pool is covered in ceramic tiles — but the tiles must all be of different sizes, shapes and colours.
By Robert Mather*
*Dr Robert Mather is Head of Southeast Asia Group, IUCN Asia. This article is based on his talk given at a workshop entitled 'Strengthening Integrated Water and Flood Management Implementation in Thailand' on July 2, 2014.
This article is first published in Bangkok Post, 24 July 2014