An institutional perspective on water sector performance in Thailand

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In recognition of the criticality of water in ensuring socio-economic prosperity of a vastly agrarian country (Thailand), the Thai policy makers have made massive investments over the years to establish and manage country’s water systems. Notwithstanding this, the Thai water systems have continued to perform poorly. For example, the performance (assessed by employing a Multi-stage Malmquist-based DEA method developed in this research) of the Thai water sector, comprising 25 key water basins, deteriorated considerably over the period 1987-2017, for all of its functional stages, namely, water supply, water usage, and water-benefits (i.e., earning of water-dependent farmers). Further, efforts by successive Thai governments to improve water sector performance, primarily by restructuring the proximate water-specific institutions, have largely failed. Despite this failure, the faith of the Thai policy makers in the appropriateness of this approach (i.e., restructuring of proximate water institutions) to improving water sector performance appears to have remained unshaken. This faith – this research contends – is unfounded and hence unlikely to improve water sector performance. The water sector performance can only be improved – this research further holds – by improving the efficacy of country’s socio-political institutions (reflecting country’s socio-political imperatives, its cultural traditions and belief systems) that provide the raison d'être for the water-sector institutions, in fact for the water sector itself. The veracity of this argument is ascertained in this research through the application of two conjoint sets of empirical analyses, namely, correlation and causality (supported by Spearman’s rank correlations coefficients) and multi-stage and cross-sectional econometrics. These analyses clearly establish the centrality of socio-political institutions in determining water sector performance. Inspired by this finding, this research delineates the contours of a sound and pragmatic institutional framework (reform model) that could considerably and enduringly improve the performance of the Thai water sector. Further, although this research has focused on the water sector of Thailand, its relevance extends to other countries and to other types of infrastructure. Increasing emphases around the world on institutions and governance as means to improve socio-economic outcomes is a testimony to the soundness of the discourse developed in this research.
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