Court-ordered halt to activity at Map Ta Phut underlines the challenges of balancing industrial development and prosperity with quality of life.It’s a debate with very real consequences for the people, pitting concerns about economic welfare against concerns over the environment, public health and quality of life.
Rapid industrial expansion and population growth have outpaced environmental management, resulting in sharply increased pollution levels (e.g. solid and hazardous waste, air, noise, and water). For example, fine particles in Bangkok’s air exceed WHO standards by 2.5 times, and other air pollutants are also causing major health impacts. Overall, it is estimated that air and water pollution costs the country 1.6 – 2.6 percent of GDP per year.
Volumes of untreated domestic sewage, industrial wastewater and solid hazardous wastes have risen dramatically in recent years. The result is that roughly one third of Thailand’s surface water bodies are considered to be of poor quality. Clearly Thailand needs to focus on more effective enforcement of environmental laws; stronger institutional capacity, both national and local; and increased investments in pollution prevention and control, with private sector participation.
Industrialists, led by the giants PTT Plc and Siam Cement Group (SCG), have said the Map Ta Phut court decision has dampened investment sentiment by raising doubts about the consistency of Thai environmental policies.
Among the 76 affected projects, 25 worth 140 billion baht are being developed by companies associated with PTT, while SCG and its affiliates have 20 ventures worth 106 billion.
Many in this community may not understand the legal morass that has caused new investment in Map Ta Phut to grind to a halt since the Administrative Court issued its injunction on Sept 29. But all are very aware of the potential consequences, either to their pockets or to their future health.
While response is mixed among Rayong residents to the court order to suspend developments of industrial projects and an earlier ruling declaring Map Ta Phut a pollution-control area, some of them do report health problems they believe are linked to factory pollution.
Meanwhile, the cabinet on Tuesday approved a draft amendment to the 1992 Enhancement and Conservation of National Environmental Quality Act as proposed by the Council of State.
The cabinet assigned PM’s Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey to promote understanding with environment activists and the National Human Rights Commission over the proposed amendment, Mr Abhisit said.
However, Stop Global Warming Association president Srisuwan Janya said activists and the commission did not believe the proposed amendment would solve problems associated with the Map Ta Phut pollution saga.
The draft amendment would establish an independent organisation to give advice to a state agency in charge of approving investment projects. It would also require project developers to conduct health impact assessment studies and hold public hearings before starting a project.
The move to amend the environment law was prompted by an Administrative Court injunction on Sept 29 suspending 76 industrial projects worth over US$12 billion in Rayong province on environmental grounds.
Standard Chartered Bank senior economist Usara Wilaipich warned that the suspension of projects in the country’s largest industrial estate would lower investor confidence and halt investment.
Other environmental issues are still pending. Land conversion, slash-and-burn agriculture, and intense exploitation of water have led to rapid deterioration of natural resources. Forest cover fell drastically from 53 percent in 1961 to 25 percent in 1998. Measures taken by government in the late 1980s to prohibit logging have begun to pay dividends, and the deforestation rate has fallen to 0.2 percent/year. However, the legacy of deforestation is creating other environmental problems, such as conversion to dry lands, sedimentation of rivers, and loss of natural habitats.
In the fisheries sector, over-harvesting of marine fisheries has reduced fishing yields by 90 percent, and coastal areas have been seriously degraded by expansion of capture fishing, shrimp aquaculture, industry and tourism. Of particular concern is water scarcity, which occurs against a backdrop of low availability, high pollution, and increasing per capita consumption. There is tremendous pressure on Thailand’s water resources, as the country ranks the lowest in Asia for annual per capita water availability, but it ranks 14th in the world in industrial organic water pollution.