Government flood 'master plan' faces deluge of criticism
Strategies to keep Bangkok dry are upsetting those whose land stands to be flooded without receiving proper compensation and others who say it's based more on theory than the reality on the ground
Vichian Phumlamjiak, chairman of the newly formed Thai Rice Farmers and Farm Folks Association, is hesitant to meet with his fellow farmers and tell them that he has not had any confirmation from the government on how much it will compensate them for the use of their rice fields to help take excess floodwater running down from the North.
Bang Rakam district in Phitsanulok was heavily flooded last year.
Mr Vichian has met with government officials and leaders of farmer groups several times since the severe flooding last year, and has been told that he and his fellow farmers may have to make sacrifices and take excess floodwater in order to keep Bangkok dry.
"They told us that they may have to divert water into our fields and store it there. But they have disappeared without giving us any further details or updates," said Mr Vichian. He owns 30 rai of farmland in Ayutthaya's Phak Hai district, one of the areas designated to take excess floodwater under government plans.
This year's rains have been far less heavy than last year's, and the government's main concerns recently have been the effects of tropical storm Gaemi _ thankfully minimal _ and verbal battles with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration about sandbags in drains.
But Mr Vichian said that water has begun to flow into his fields and those of other farmers and nobody in the government wants to discuss it. "It's fortunate that this year we've already harvested our rice _ we learned from our experiences last year when our rice was flooded to a depth of more than three metres and we had to swim to harvest it," said Mr Vichian.
The government started to formulate an ambitious master plan shortly after the major flooding last year that cost the country up to 1.44 trillion baht, as estimated by the World Bank.
a Sukhothai farmer harvests rice in his flood-damaged paddy in Kong Krailat district.
The water management master plan has since been completed. From a starting point of eight strategic plans covering watersheds, the central part of the Chao Phraya basin, down to the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, the master plan has recently been transformed into a set of guidelines, with projects clearly prioritised so construction firms can start bidding for more than 300 billion baht's worth of work.
But this process has been criticised by several experts who claim that crucial steps needed to ensure that the plan will be socially, environmentally and economically feasible have been skipped.
"It's principally based on theory, not the reality on the ground," said Sutat Weesakul, a member of the technical staff of the government's water and flood management commission.
According to materials seen by Spectrum, the master plan comprises eight key strategic plans, namely:
Forest and ecosystem restoration and conservation.
Revisions to dam operations and water management plans.
An overhaul of water infrastructure.
Development of warning systems.
Development of emergency plans.
Development of water retention areas.
An overhaul of water command and management agencies.
Development of public hearing and consultation systems for flood management.
While forest and ecosystem restoration is at the top of the agenda, the development of new dams has been given a budget of 50 billion baht, with the controversial Kaeng Sua Tan and Mae Wong dams clearly stated as priorities.
The overhaul of city water planning and infrastructure comes third, and the controversial plan for the development of water retention areas which has farmers such as Mr Vichian worried comes fourth, with a budget of 60 billion baht.
While the government has plans for the overhaul of existing river channels, it has also allocated a 120 billion baht budget for the development of new floodways.
The government wishes to retain water in watersheds, divert it into fields if it exceeds the capacity of the river and the irrigation infrastructure in the central region of the Chao Phraya basin and discharge it as quickly as possible with new channels. It also seeks to overhaul existing discharge systems at the mouth of the river.
But those living and working in the Chao Phraya basin, which covers an area of more than 157,000 square kilometres, have questions for the government.
"If we have to make sacrifices, we have to make sacrifices, but how are you going to compensate us?" asked Mr Vichian.
LOST HERITAGE: This golden teak forest in Phrae will be submerged if the Kaeng Sua Ten dam project is given the green light,
In the central region of the Chao Phraya basin, the principal water management mechanisms that are hoped to help save Bangkok from flooding are water diversion and distribution through a network of natural channels, the irrigation infrastructure and farmers' fields to help both retain and distribute water to relieve the impact of flooding when needed.
However, the reality on the ground as seen by some water officials and local residents runs counter to the government's ambitious plans.
One irrigation official working in the basin explained to Spectrum on the condition of anonymity that every year the basin is prone to flooding naturally.
"On the Nan, Ping and Wang rivers, the irrigation department constructed major dams several years ago to help regulate the flow in those rivers, which to a certain extent has been successful. But it has never been able to construct a major dam on the Yom river.
"When excess water flows down to Nakhon Sawan province, where the Chao Phraya starts, irrigation officials will normally keep an eye on water levels and the volume of water discharged in the river."
Although the dam on the downstream Chao Phraya in Chai Nat province can help regulate water flow to 3,500 cubic metres per second, at best it can only handle 2,000 cubic metres per second. Anything above this figure would start flooding properties downstream because the Chao Phraya River does not have the capacity to handle any more than this figure in several areas it flows through on its way to the sea.
That means any discharge beyond the rate of 2,000 cubic metres per second must be regulated above the Chao Phraya dam. Currently, the Irrigation Department has existing systems _ comprising mainly of a network of irrigation canals _ that can handle about 700 cubic metres per second on the western and eastern sides of the Chao Phraya.
This means that any discharge above 2,700 cubic metres per second will strain the existing Chao Phraya irrigation systems beyond their capacity.
"This is one of the reasons for the major flooding last year, which saw discharge rates of more than 4,000 cubic metres per second," the official explained.
Lessons learned from last year's floods have helped form the government's plan to use irrigated rice fields as temporary reservoirs to hold around five billion cubic metres of excess water.
"The problem is that the current irrigation infrastructure was not designed for handling such volumes of floodwater," the official said.
He and other irrigation officials fear that when the time comes, the irrigation system will not be able to handle the volume of water expected by the government.
For example, irrigated farmland at Barom That and Channasoot in Chai Nat province, looks like it could take excess floodwater when needed as it has irrigation infrastructure, including canals, sluice gates and pumps to help regulate water flow, but as irrigation officials told Spectrum, the system is not designed to handle floodwater.
"We are afraid that we are being required to do what cannot be done," said another irrigation official, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another problem is that the government has not come up with clear policies to address social issues, including compensation for farmers who will be asked to sacrifice their farmland for use as temporary reservoirs.
"Also," the official said, "the areas selected for such use may possibly have been chosen due to political influence, and some areas may be removed from the programme, meaning they will stay dry."
Another problem is that large areas of unirrigated fields may be flooded without farmers receiving compensation. As irrigation officials told Spectrum, they are regarded by the government as areas that would flood naturally anyway. Therefore, no compensation would be paid to farmers in such areas.
Pramote Maiklad, a former member of the government's strategic water and flood management committee which developed the master plan, and a former irrigation chief, questioned the plan.
He said the master plan is very much in the initial stages, and it's far too early to open the bidding process.
He said it was principally developed on theory, and hardly any fieldwork has been conducted to determine its feasibility.
"By opening the plan and sub plans for bidding, the government is skipping the processes that are crucial to determine the success of overall flood management in the country.
"What needs to be worked out, no less than technical problems, are the social and environmental factors.
"For example, how could the government build Kaeng Sue Tan dam or divert water into farmer's fields if it does not calm residents' concerns and take into account the possible impact on their livelihoods?
"This is dangerous because once we move forward without clear ideas and action plans, we may strumble into a series of problems because people will not allow us to do what we want to. Plans may be left incomplete and our money, time and effort will have been wasted," said Mr Pramote.
Mr Pramote suggested the government slow down the process and conduct feasibility studies for the master plan to see what it can and cannot achieve, and find alternatives rather than rushing ahead with expensive mega construction projects.
He said water management should not be a partisan issue, but a policy in the national interest, under which stakeholders should be allowed to come together to have a say in determining what works best.
"It may take time but it should be planned carefully," he said.
"Water is not something that you can deal with in a hurried manner. It involves people's lives, and you have to know its impact on people's livelihoods and manage it from that aspect as well," said Mr Pramote.
Mr Sutat, who shares Mr Pramote's view, suggested the government conduct further fieldwork in order to get more input from the ground to help determine the feasibility of the plans.
"One point that we can praise in the master plan is the idea of thorough flood management, from watersheds to the rivermouth. But we need more work in order to make it more comprehensive, as there are social and environmental aspects that we need to take into account. It's more than just managing a body of water," said Mr Sutat.
HOPING FOR PROTECTION: Teak trees were draped in monk’s robes in a ceremony to ordain the forest at tambon Sa-iab in Phrae’s Song district.
INADEQUATE DEFENCES: The levee along the banks of the Yom River.
About the author
- Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang