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Richard Friend (ISET-International) and Pakamas Thinphanga (Thailand Environment Institute)

Udon Thani, in the North East of Thailand, has many water needs, but management and planning processes are not yet able to account for the complexity of such a rapidly growing city. This becomes all the more problematic as the city faces some of the emerging risks that arise from climate change.

As the city has expanded, demand for water has increased, while precipitation has become more variable and less predictable. The city is now facing problems with water availability and quality. The city is dependent on one main water source – the Huay Luang reservoir – that was built over 40 years ago and designed to meet the largely rural irrigation needs of small-scale rice farmers. The pressures on the Huay Luang have intensified, with the expansion of irrigated rice and other crops across the province, and increasing need to meet domestic water demands of the growing urban population. The reservoir has a capacity of 135 million cubic meters, but agriculture requires 138 cubic metres per year, and the combined demand from urban areas and industry is already at 22 million cubic metres per year. This demand is only set to rise again, as urban populations increase further, and as industry becomes more established in the area.

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Caption 1: The flow of the Huay Nong Dae stream is now seriously undermined by the expansion of major roads, housing and commercial estates, undermining the natural drainage of the floodplain areas into which the city of Udon Thani is expanding. Once a viable source of water the stream is now heavily polluted.

While demand has increased water availability has become more variable. Recent conditions appear to be consistent with climate projections that suggest dry seasons will become longer and drier, with precipitation in the rainy season becoming less predictable, and with more intense rainfall often in a shorter space of time. These shifts in precipitation also raise the risk of flooding – further compounded by the expansion of built-up areas across natural floodplains, altering the hydrology.

During the time in which M-BRACE partners conducted a series of Vulnerability Assessments, Udon Thani experienced a widely reported water crisis in the dry season. The levels in the reservoir dropped so low, that the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) was obliged to pump the water out of the reservoir to the outflow canals. Fortunately domestic water supply to the city could be maintained but at a cost borne by farmers requiring irrigation. After such an intense dry season, RID reservoir managers were keen to ensure that they were able to store enough water in the rainy season to meet the demand of the following dry season. However precipitation patterns are also proving less reliable than historical trends, making it all the more difficult for reservoir managers to plan when to store and release water.

In 2012, reservoir managers released water several times during the rainy season to avoid repeating the 2011 flood crisis. By the end of 2012 as they moved into the dry season Udon was facing a severe water shortage.

In 2013 reservoir managers had already reached 70% of storage capacity only for a tropical storm and the threat of intense rainfall to move towards Udon later in the rainy season. This led the central department in Bangkok to order pre-emptive release from the reservoir to avoid the risk of flooding downstream of the reservoir and in the city. However the storm passed without any rainfall, leaving the reservoir now well below capacity. It was again a matter of luck that a subsequent, but unexpected storm did actually pass through Udon with enough rainfall to refill the reservoir. Even so, in 2014 there remains the likelihood of water shortages through the dry season, as even at full capacity the reservoir struggles to meet rising demand.

Under the M-BRACE program in Udon Thani, local partners are assessing options for managing local water sources. The expansion of the urban area is leading to encroachment and degradation of local water bodies that have traditionally been sources for domestic water supply.

With support from M-BRACE, the Municipality of Udon Thani, the local Rajabhat University and the Thai Research Fund (TRF), along with local people across 18 villages are conducting research to assess and map local water systems – including the flow, areas of flood risk – identifying the water bodies and wetlands that contribute to urban flood drainage and provide domestic water sources. Traditionally these water bodies provided domestic water (and some irrigation) to local rural communities. However, these have often been poorly maintained leading to declines in water quality. At the same time, as the city area has expanded, these formerly rural communities are more directly linked to the urban areas. Many of these small water bodies are being targeted as sites for development of housing estates, often with waste-water discharged from the estates directly into these waterways without adequate treatment. The combination of these pressures has reduced the water quality. With poor and unreliable water quality, the demand for water from these sources declines, pushing demand towards the piped sources from the Huay Luang.

picture2Caption 2: Local villagers, including this village headman present hand drawn maps that identify natural water bodies, drainage and flood risk zones – and the communities that utilize these resources. In addition to the participatory maps, the researchers are using Google Earth and other sources for their research.

The research is considering how rehabilitating and maintaining these bodies might improve natural drainage for the whole expanding urban areas, as well as provide additional water sources in a more decentralized, modular water supply, thus contributing to the flexibility, diversity and redundancy of the urban water systems.

This kind of research, in which local people in partnership with government agencies and research centres take the lead in assessing and mapping a water sources, is important for the information that it generates. Additionally, such a collaborative research process that involves both citizen and expert-led science contributes to opening arenas for broader informed public policy dialogue. These processes lie at the heart of building resilience – creating new arenas for state and citizens to enter into informed public dialogues for both assessing vulnerability as well as identifying innovative options for action.

Acknowledgements: Mekong-Building Climate Resilience in Asian Cities (M-BRACE) is a four-year program funded by USAID that aims to strengthen capacity of stakeholders in medium-sized cities in the Thailand and Vietnam region deal with the challenges of urbanization and climate change. The program is implemented by ISET-International, in partnership with the Thailand Environment Institute (TEI) and NISTPASS.

This blog article draws on original research being conducted under the M-BRACE program led by Dr. Santipab Siriwattanapiboon (Rajabhat University, Udon Thani) and Ms. Pattcharin Chairob (Thai Research Fund), as well as the M-BRACE Vulnerability Assessments.

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