Climate resilience: Transforming lives in Thailand

Local knowledge supports decision making. Picture courtesy Hydro-Informatics Institute

Royboon Rassameethes highlights the success story of Ban Limthong, a village whose community-led model for water management has been rolled out across Thailand.

Thailand has long been challenged by water management issues – flood and drought in particular – highlighting the need to build resilience to these environmental threats to enable sustainable practices for the benefit of livelihoods and economic development.

Hydro-Informatics Institute (HII) has initiated the Community Water Resource Management (CWRM) model which empowers local people to participate, manage, implement, and develop water resources for themselves. HII provides its CWRM model to the community; this collects area-based data using a satellite map to analyse the appropriate water management solution that best fits circumstances.

The crucial factor triggering successful development depends on the engagement of relevant stakeholders to take part in every step of the implementation to foster the community’s sense of ownership, commitment, and pride. Meanwhile, HII plays its role as a supporting partner, providing knowledge, technologies, and budgeting, to help accelerate progress.

People-centred guide for development

HII’s CWRM model aims to apply the Sufficiency Economy Philosophy (SEP) of King Rama IX which was introduced to the Thai people as a guideline for development. SEP focuses on the security of soil, water and forest, which is fundamental for Thailand as an agriculture-based country. This people-centred development approach highlights the appropriate use of science and technology to acquire data and analysis to deliver optimum benefits for all. In the case of water management, the complete water data set, including water maps, water tables, water balance, and all analytical information, is required for management and planning.

HII has applied this concept, focusing initially on two communities in 2003 and successfully expanding to more than 1800 communities within two decades.

The story of Ban Limthong

The example of Ban Limthong demonstrates how the application of science and technology following SEP guidelines is benefiting communities in the northeast of Thailand.

Ban Limthong is situated in a drought-prone area in Nongbode district, Buri Ram province, northeast Thailand. Local people suffered from drought in the dry season, followed by flooding when the rain arrived.

This challenge lasted more than 40 years until 2007. The severity of drought and the struggle of local people for a better life is well-described by the Thai idiom ‘Pounding for water to survive in Buri Ram’, which highlights how local villagers were forced to gather mud and pound it to extract water for their consumption. Many young people left the area in search of a better life, while the elderly were left at home, forced to fend for themselves.

HII began its CWRM programme in 2003 and Ban Limthong was one of its first two pilot implementation areas. The institute promoted a mindset of self-reliance, facilitating problem solving and decision-making skills for local people by applying appropriate science and technology suited within the local context, empowering local villagers to manage their resources. The institute explained how tools such as GPS receivers, satellite images, and computer programmes could provide greater knowledge and solutions within the local context. Villagers were required to set their own goals, designing development and maintenance plans, using information that was collected by themselves. In accordance with the concept, all the field work was done by the local community with technological and relevant support from HII.

To create a comprehensive plan, the local community applied the following process:

  • Survey for facts.
  • Identify the problems, which are then summarised in the development plan.
  • Prioritise the urgency of each resolution.

With a consensus from the local community and their management committee, HII has supported them with knowledge and some funding from relevant partners, including local government and private investment, to initiate the implementation of their plan. The villagers were encouraged to apply technologies such as satellite imaging and GPS to solve water related problems.

Pond network system

A network of ponds was designed and developed to connect flood channels with Lum-mard (the major waterway in the region, located in the lower Mun River basin and connected to the Mekong River). It consists of 70 water retention ponds that hold water before it runs through to agricultural areas, sub-canals and finally to more than 50 farmers’ ponds.

Retention ponds are called ‘monkey cheeks’ in Thai after a concept established by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej who observed that monkeys store bananas in their cheeks, conserving them to eat later. So, ‘monkey cheek’ ponds are used to store excess water for later use. This pond network system serves as a water reservoir for use in the dry season. Vetiver grasses have been planted to trap sediment, which provides a valuable source of nutrients for agricultural production.

A canal structure was introduced to the villagers to divert floodwater to the retention ponds. This helped reduce the flooding of households and agricultural areas. Some 56.4 km of canals and sub-canals have been connected with a network of more than 100 water retention ponds and farmers’ ponds have increased water storage by 1.7 million cubic metres, supplying an agricultural area of 93.22 km (68% of the total area). Water storage expansion has increased local crop production in the dry season, allowing multiple crops to be grown, resulting in a three-fold increase in household income. An area of 11.76km is now fully protected from floods and droughts, while an area of 21.34km is benefiting from reduced disaster risk. As a response to these changes people who had migrated have returned for a better life back in their home community.

Integrated agriculture (usually known as New-Theory Agriculture in Thailand) is applied to ensure better use of farmland and strengthened crop planning. Cooperatives have been created to support farmers with the planting, distribution and selling of their products.

The key to success

Ban Limthong demonstrates a fantastic example of how the application of appropriate technology and the empowerment of local people to make choices regarding their local environment according to the facts and findings of their own field studies can strengthen local knowledge and climate resilience.

This model has become the signature of successful water management programmes across Thailand, cementing collaborative initiatives between public and private sectors and local communities.

The author

Royboon Rassameethes is deputy director of the Hydro-Informatics Institute