Dynamics of Water Tenure and Management among Thai Groups in Highland Southeast Asia: A Comparative Study of Muang-Fai Systems in Thailand and Vietnam

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"Community-based water management systems for irrigation have been extensively described for the lowlands of Thailand and Vietnam as participatory, sustainable and fairly equitable water allocation institutions. Much less is known about the structure and dynamics of the so- called 'muang-fai' systems of different Thai groups in highland areas. Muang- fai irrigation systems of Thai communities in Thailand and Vietnam share the same long-standing tradition and consist of a sophisticated network of canals (muang) and weirs (fai). The impact of the markedly different political and economic developments in the past decades on community-based water management, however, has induced diverging trajectories of the systems in the two countries. "The objectives of this paper are to present the complexity of water rights and to analyze the dynamics in tenure systems and the driving forces behind changes in water management. The study is based on in- depth surveys conducted between 2002 and 2005 in a Thai market-oriented village in Mae Rim district, Chiang Mai province, a subsistence-oriented Shan village in Pang Ma Pha district, Mae Hong Son province, both in Thailand, and a subsistence-oriented Black Thai village in Yen Chau district, Son La province of Vietnam. Semi-structured interviews with key persons, quantitative farm household surveys and a GIS-based inventory of water storage and conveyance systems provided insights into local water management schemes from various perspectives and different data sources. "Results suggest that control and use rights of water in both study villages in Thailand are characterized by a high tenure complexity and reflect local power relations but differ strongly depending on the degree of market integration. In the Shan village water is still communally managed in a fairly intact 'muang-fai' system, while in the Thai community a dramatic shift from communal to individual management of water resources has occurred in recent years, reflected in the construction of private wells. However, in many cases individual water rights remain bound to former membership of the 'muang-fai' system despite the rapid decline of its physical existence. Results in the study village in Vietnam show a community-based water management that owes its complexity both to the traditional, pre-socialist 'muang-fai' system of the Black Thai and to the remnants of the cooperative system of the 1980s and the early 1990s. A more pluralistic water governance system is currently evolving with indicators for an individualization of water rights at the village level and an increasing control over water resources by local government bodies at the provincial and district level. "We conclude that while communal water management institutions have remained resilient for centuries, they are now facing increasing pressure to adapt to new economic and political realities. Instead of being simply replaced, they form part of a more diverse portfolio of water governance institutions. Recognition of this legal complexity of local water tenure regimes and a careful assessment of location-specific management systems are keys for identifying sustainable solutions to increased competition for scarce water resources."



IASC, farmer-managed irrigation, indigenous institutions, property rights, complexity