The institutional key to step-up disaster risk management in Thailand

By Andrea Colombo, Jr. Policy Analyst, and Chloé Stutzmann, Consultant, OECD Development Centre

Thailand, Nonthaburi flood, 2011.
Photo: Suwan Wanawattanawong /

The increasing exposure of people to disaster worldwide was a key issue during last week’s World Water Forum in Brasilia. By 2050, almost 2 billion people in the world will be at risk of floods. At the same time, between 5 and 6 billion people might live in areas that will be water-scarce.

Thailand is no exception to this global trend. The 2011 floods affected 16 million people and claimed over 1 000 lives. The economic damage accounted for over USD 9 billion in the city of Bangkok alone (OECD, 2015). In 2016, drought was declared in 14 provinces, and water rationing was imposed as major dams dropped to their lowest levels since 1994. Such flooding and drought moreover negatively affect agricultural production, especially in Thailand’s rural provinces in the North, the Northeast and the South regions, where agriculture’s share in GDP exceeded 20% in 2015, compared to the 9% national average.

Climate change is expected to exacerbate these conditions even further. Heavier rainfalls are projected to hit areas with already high precipitation, such as the southern peninsula, leading to increased potential for flooding. Precipitation is expected to decline even further in the arid, inland Northeast region, making drought more likely. Nature and climate patterns, however, are only part of the story. A lack of integrated water management and mediocre water governance are hindering an effective response to these challenges. Water management in Thailand is characterised by a highly fragmented institutional framework consisting of 31 ministerial departments, 10 ministries, one national unit under the Prime Minister’s Office, one agency and six national committees. Overlapping responsibilities can lead to conflicts of interest and impede the development of integrated water management. Furthermore, Thailand has no single law governing water management. Currently, there are 36 primary laws and 2 000 secondary legal frameworks relating to water resource management.

What has been done so far to amend this institutional fragmentation?

Thailand stepped up its efforts to fix the institutional framework around water management and disaster risk management. For several years, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has been drafting an act aimed at rationalising the legal framework, strengthening existing legal instruments and ensuring the effectiveness of policies. In parallel, Thailand launched a number of water management plans and strategies. In particular, the government adopted the National Disaster Risk Management Plan in 2015, which seeks to improve co-ordination between the different parts and levels of government responsible for disaster management – an identified weakness of previous approaches. The plan also makes reference to non-structural mitigation measures such as land-use planning, zoning, building codes and other incentive measures. These measures play a vital role in moving from a “reactive” disaster response and recovery mode to a proactive approach that encompasses disaster risk reduction

Still, even with these changes underway, what challenges are ahead?

First, the geographical distribution of water resources is uneven. The major demand centres of Bangkok and the central provinces are not equipped with their own water reservoirs. Therefore, they rely on supplies from other regions, where water-demanding agricultural activities are the backbone of the local economy. Second, local authorities lack the capacity to respond effectively to disasters and receive insufficient assistance from the central government. Third, while water management requires provinces and local authorities to co-ordinate their administrative borders, they lack a mechanism to do so. Thailand thus needs to ensure effective co-ordination across existing agencies, at all levels of governance, for a fairer distribution of natural resources across the country. Sufficient funding and increased capacity at the local level will be needed if plans are to be effective.

Such issues related to water and disaster risk management are part of an ongoing analysis Thailand is undertaking to better understand how best to advance its development. In this context, the forthcoming OECD Multi-dimensional Review of Thailand Initial Assessment1 identifies the institutional constraints that are impeding actions, plans and reforms in this critical sector and provides initial recommendations. The Initial Assessment is a concrete step towards the ultimate goal of designing and implementing policies to meet the growing and pressing challenge of integrated water management in ways that will make a sustainable difference.

1. The volume will be presented in Bangkok on 9 April 2018 and made available through the MDCR website