Thai Farmers Oppose National Water Resources Bill: Are Rougher Political Conditions Ahead?

1 November 2017 Mervyn Piesse, Research Manager, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

Background

The Thai Natural Resources and Environment Ministry is expected to complete a draft National Water Resources Bill by late January 2018. If it is adopted into law, it is expected to introduce water usage fees for industries that consume water from rivers, lakes and aquifers. The bill aims to implement a standardised water management system across the country, a feat that numerous Thai governments have attempted to achieve since 1992. Previous efforts have failed to gain traction in a country where water plays a critical cultural function and farmers are seen as the backbone of the community.

Comment

Under current legislation, water users are free to pump water from rivers, lakes and aquifers based on their own “necessity”. As demand for water – which already outstrips supply – from different economic sectors increases, however, this approach is clearly unsustainable. The National Water Resources Bill will help to ensure that limited water resources are fairly distributed and properly managed.

Farmers’ groups view the bill as a “water tax” that will increase the operating costs of their members. The Thai Farmers Association president, Rawee Rungrueng, argues that farmers should not have to pay for the water that they use as it ‘comes from rain which is free’. Small-scale farmers, with limited land holdings and tight operating margins, are believed to be a great risk from the proposed bill.

Small-scale farmers are unlikely to be affected by the water usage fees, however, as the bill divides water users into three categories with more prolific users paying a higher rate. The draft bill does not state the exact figures that water users will be charged, but one proposal suggests that rice farmers with more than eight hectares of land will be charged 0.50 baht ($0.02) per cubic metre of water. As most Thai farmers own significantly less than eight hectares of land, the majority of them, at least under this proposal, will be exempt from paying for their water use. There are still fears, however, that charging farmers for water could lead to the collapse of small-scale agriculture.

Increased private debt has weighed heavily on rural communities, with Thailand holding the second-highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the Association of South-East Asian Nations. Household debt peaked at 81.2 per cent of GDP in 2015 after rapidly rising from below 60 per cent in 2010. Rising debts have led to a decrease in agricultural land ownership. The portion of Thai farmers that own the land they work on has declined from 44 per cent in 2004 to 15 per cent in 2011. The perception that the water resources bill will increase costs for farmers plays into the hands of the much-weakened Pheu Thai and Democrat parties. Both parties oppose the bill due to concerns about the financial implications it could have for farmers.

General elections are scheduled to occur in November 2018, but there is every possibility that they will be postponed. The new constitution, which was enshrined into law in April, grants the military considerable political power. Any new government is forced to adhere to the junta’s 20-year development plan and will have to work with a senate appointed by the military. Even if public sentiment toward the National Water Resources Bill plays into the hands of the political opposition, they are unlikely to derive much benefit from it due to the strengthened military presence in Thai politics.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
Suite 5, 202 Hampden Road, Nedlands WA 6009, Australia.