Australia and Thailand collaborate on irrigation water sharing to manage water scarcity

At the start of 2020, Thailand was in the midst of its worst drought in the last four decades. About half of the major reservoirs in the country were below 50 per cent of capacity, and low river levels meant saltwater intrusion affected drinking water supplies and farming. There has also been insufficient water to meet the needs of the farmers across the Chao Phraya River Basin.

A severe drought in Thailand (and surrounding region) affecting agriculture and drinking water in the region, 1 January – 7 February, 2020 (credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin using soil moisture data from NASA-USDA and the SMAP Science Team)

Over the last three years, and as part of the Australia-Thailand cooperation on water, the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) has sought to get an understanding of Australia’s approach to water ordering (or water requesting as it is known in Thai), to help Thailand manage water scarcity and better share water for irrigation.

Thailand is adopting a mixture of learnings from Australia with the support of AWP Partner, RM Consulting Group (RMCG) – through field visits in 2018 and 2019, the development of an AWP-funded Irrigation Water Ordering publication, as well as providing technical inputs to a pilot water ordering approach to a sub-system within one of their major canals.

The Australian experience is based on the water ordering systems that evolved following droughts in New South Wales between 1982 and 2000 and the practices currently used in the Coliban irrigation system. Water ordering is the principle of water users placing orders for a volume of water to be supplied (by their water authority) to meet their crop demands. Water ordering reduces over-supply wastage by matching canal flows with actual user-demand (water-orders). It can be an effective drought-management tool to reduce system losses, and it enables water to be shared fairly among all farmers.

The widespread ownership and use of mobile phones make developing a responsive water ordering system possible. Dr Rob Rendell, George Warne, Brendan Keogh, and their team at RMCG have actively shared Australia’s technology experiences as well as visited the pilot site where the intention is to apply water ordering in a Thai context. Dr Thanet Somboon and colleagues from the RID also visited southeast Australia in 2018 and most recently in July 2019 to gain first-hand knowledge of water ordering in practice.

Thai interest in water ordering stems from increasing pressures on available water and the need for more effective sharing mechanisms between users, while also being able to provide water efficiently when needed for crop production. Thailand is interested in learning the approaches that have been developed in Australia over years of gradual step-by-step changes and exploring what can be adapted to the Thai context.

Australian lessons that can be adapted to the Thai context include how to effectively monitor water availability and communicate this information to farmers so they can understand the status of water resources, and make decisions on managing their crops. There is also an interest from Thailand in learning how Australia has worked at improving the efficiency in delivering water to farmers.

Representatives from the Thailand Royal Irrigation Department, DFAT, and AWP took part in the 20th meeting of the Australia-Thailand Joint Working Group on Agriculture at the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives in Thailand, 15 October 2020.

This cooperation between Thailand and Australia is continuing through AWP with RMCG as well as colleagues from Coliban Water. Representatives from both took part in the recent 20th meeting of the Australia-Thailand Joint Working Group on Agriculture at the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives where the activities to support Thai adoption of irrigation water “requesting” and sharing practices at the local/district level were highlighted.

RID is running its first workshop at its pilot site in Sing Buri Province on 29–30 October, and with COVID-19 restricting travel, the Australia experts will take part virtually to share their personal experiences. The presentation included a virtual tour of the Coliban system, providing technical comments on the Thai system, and giving suggestions on how to establish ‘entitlements’ or a water-sharing basis for the pilot area. The workshop was also an opportunity to launch the Thai translation of ‘Irrigation Water Ordering: An Australian Perspective’.

The publication (now available both in and ) summarises why water ordering is important, explains the background and evolution of water ordering as it is practiced in Australia, and presents case studies that illustrate a range of contexts and approaches to managing water ordering to achieve a high level of irrigation service.

The foundation for knowledge exchange on irrigation between Thailand and Australia is well established and will support irrigators by providing an improved level of service and method of managing water scarcity.

Deputy Head of Mission to Thailand, Paul Stephens (center left) and DFAT Lead Water Specialist, John Dore (back), presented the Thai translation of the publication to representatives from the Royal Irrigation Department led by Dr Thanet Somboon (center right).

Feature photo: Morning view of a river in Thailand during drought (credit: Adobe Stock / sushi7688)
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