In the early 1990s, Thailand launched an ambitious program of decentralized governance, conferring greater responsibilities upon sub-district administrations and providing fiscal opportunities for local development planning. This process was reinforced by Thailand's new Constitution of 1997, which explicitly assures individuals, communities and local authorities the right to participate in the management of natural resources.

Drawing on a study of water management in the Mae Sa watershed, northern Thailand, this article analyzes to what extent the constitutional right of participation has been put into practice. To this end, a stakeholder analysis was conducted in the watershed, with a focus on local people's interests and strategies in water management and the transformation of participatory policies through government agencies at the local level. While government officers stressed the importance of stakeholder inclusion and cooperation with the local people, there is a sharp contrast between the official rhetoric and the reality on the ground. The analysis reveals that government officers, particularly in the conservation-oriented agencies, are not disposed to devolve power to lower levels and that participation of local people in water management seems currently to be passive or, at best, consultative in nature.

In order to deal with the increasingly severe water problems in northern Thailand, decision makers have to recognize the value of participation and promote a profound change in government officers' attitudes towards local people through training programs and incentives.