New ministry risks sinking

New ministry risks sinking

The brainchild of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon to create a ministry of water has been well received, and if he had his way, it would be launched this year and touted as a highly desirable destination for ambitious politicians. The big question is whether the new ministry can live up to that billing without becoming just another cash sponge for big-ticket projects that do little to solve the real problems.

The government made a surprisingly quick decision last week to launch the new ministry and to fast-track his initiative, Gen Prawit gave related agencies 30 days to draft an initial blueprint.

The idea of having a ministry to manage water resources is not a new one. Policy makers and politicians for decades have wished for a ministry of water or a national committee in the form of the highly regarded "Water Board" of the Netherlands.

The demand is understandable given that, at present, as many as 38 government organisations share that burden, but mostly work in silos, and under differing laws and regulations, thus making any kind of synergistic long-term planning next to impossible.

Politicians -- even a number of staunch critics of Gen Prawit in the past -- have been supportive, agreeing that now is the time to finally bring the administration of such an important resource under one roof.

Even Thepthai Senapong, a former Democrat MP for Nakhon Si Thammarat who has never been shy of taking the general to task in the past, wrote on his Facebook last week that he is "100% supportive" of the idea. "The water ministry will become a Grade A or even a Grade B ministry because it will bring six major departments and two state enterprises under its umbrella."

It is therefore no surprise that have been questions from experts and environmental conservationists about the need for the ministry.

The late Surajit Chirawate, a former senator from Samut Songkhram who previously chaired a House committee on water resource management, once warned against what he feared might become a bottleneck to reactive policymaking due to its inherent centralisation of power. And former weather bureau chief Smith Dhammasaroj foresaw the dystopian nightmare of a key bureau administered by men with great ambition but little expertise or interest in mastering the complexities of such a vital national resource on their marches towards glory or ignominy in offices on higher floors.

Indeed, the set-up of The Office of National Water Resources (ONWR) in 2018, moulded in the image of the Dutch Water Board, with Gen Prawit as chairperson was a bellwether of the problems ahead. The promise of early small successes in flood management quickly gave way to Big Bureaucracy and an 11% share of the national budget this year as it tries to juggle 48,115 separate water projects into a cohesive strategy.

Year-on-year, the country's water bill has surged by 203%, while the number of projects initiated has also increased by 76% when compared with the 27,275 undertaken in the 2021 fiscal year.

The government has brushed aside any fears, however, by rewriting the ONWR's history to claim it was never meant to be anything more than a regulator.

What the country really needs, according the government, is the level of competence that only ministerial-level management can offer.

So, while Gen Prawit appears to have got his wish, the rest of us can only hope well that this grand endeavour turns out a little better than a number of others in recent memory.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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