Measures to fight environment woes

Measures to fight environment woes

27 March 2007

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Thailand — Environmental pollution does not just occur _ it was madeby someone and often gets shrouded in politics


I live in the city that was declared an environmental disaster zone becausehaze has enshrouded the whole valley.

Where does the smoke come from? As far as I can summarise, the smoke is saidto have come from bushfires in Thailand, Laos and Burma. In the province I livein, there is a campaign urging villagers to stop the practice of rubbishdisposal by burning. The no-burn-thus-no-smoke campaign went so far as to targetoutdoor BBQ or moo kata (grilled pork) restaurants, which exist in abundancearound town.

It’s true that as the haze is sitting still over the town causing anatmosphere of crisis, anything that will help reduce the smoke would be awelcome move. After all, all kinds of smoke won’t rise above the valley. Eventhough there is a university in the city, we don’t yet have an exact figure ofwhat constitutes the foggy haze enveloping the city _ how many per cent comefrom bushfires, rubbish burning, moo kata or household activities.

What I want to know most, however, is how many per cent of it comes from carexhaust fumes. And in the downtown area, where the situation is gravest, howmany per cent of the haze problem is caused by the fact that high buildings aretrapping the smoke from escaping?

I want to know these figures most because among measures that have beenproposed to tackle the haze, I haven’t seen one that will affect the lifestyleof the rich except perhaps for them to stay indoors (probably in anair-conditioned room with an air purifier machine). Why must the poor andmarginalised be the only groups to take responsibility for the environmentalcrisis, be they villagers who resort to the cheapest way of garbage disposal byburning or ethnic Thais who have always taken the blame instead of unscrupulouscapitalists and corrupt bureaucrats for forest destruction?

The thing is, one fine day, the heat of summer would lift the heavy haze outof our valley. The crisis would then be averted and there won’t be any need toplan for another haze crisis next year. There won’t be any need to find a newsystem of garbage disposal that is environmentally friendly and economicallypossible for the villagers, to improve the public transportation system so thatthere will be fewer cars in the streets or to better protect our forests _ allthese things that will help relieve the haze crisis.

The thing is, the very first measure that any society that yearns to takecare of its environmental problems must come up with is to ensure that there isjustice to all its members. As far as Thai society can’t create that sense ofequality, small people will always get blamed for environmental woes. As Ibattle the haze crisis, fish farmers in Ang Thong and Ayutthaya face a seconddisaster in a year _ all the fish they raised went belly-up because oxygen inthe water was depleted. Each farmer had invested 500,000 to 2,000,000 baht intheir business _ most must be borrowed money as these same farmers had justrecovered from a flood disaster earlier.

We know that the fish were dead because all of a sudden oxygen was gone fromthe water. But why? Despite protests from the farmers, the authorities did notseem so keen to establish the exact cause of the water pollution. The villagersasked to inspect a plant they suspected of releasing polluted water but theywere not allowed to. By the time the authorities went in to inspect the plant,no evidence was left to study or analyse.

The second measure that a society that wants to take care of itsenvironmental problems must come up with is to have honest bureaucrats who haveprofessional integrity and are competent in their job so that we can have atimely, well-rounded and just report and analysis in the face of anenvironmental problem _ one that clearly determines who must be held accountablefor such a disaster.

Do Thai bureaucrats fit the bill? The history of environmental problems whichhave occurred repeatedly in many provinces in Thailand speaks for itself.

At Klity lead mine, the bureaucrats are the one who approved the business ofmining with such a dangerous technology, for example to keep the waste inside adam which proved futile as the company owners would not want to increase thecost of their operation by building a strong enough dam.

Once the lead leaked out to Klity creek, a public source of water especiallyfor Karen people living downstream from the mine, the ethnic villagers were theones who bore the brunt. The bureaucrats have never pinpointed clearly who hasto take responsibility for the contamination. That compensation was finally paidwas because the court had a verdict on the case, not because the bureaucratsfelt the need to do so.

The cadmium contamination in Tak province follows the same line. So is theair pollution caused by the Mae Moh coal-fired power plant or Map Ta Phutindustrial estate.

The thing is, when it comes to environmental problems, we don’t have a fairreferee. Our bureaucrats have refused to assume the role, or they lack theability to do so.

The result is we haven’t been able to pin the blame of environmental disasteron anyone.

While these environmental disasters are sporadically featured in the massmedia, none of them has made an effort to do an in-depth report. The public alsoseems to pay only superficial attention to the problems as they feel that theywon’t be affected. Members of the public can’t seem to connect theseenvironmental disasters to themselves _ that lead-contaminated water from Klitycreek would eventually flow to the Mae Klong river, that cadmium would seep intorice plants and that fish that consumed toxic waste from Map Ta Phut plants maybe caught and put on our table for dinner.

Thus, the third measure that any society that wishes to take care of itsenvironmental problems must come up with is to have an environmentally-awarepublic. The awareness is bolstered by the media.

Unfortunately, all the quintessential three conditions are weak in ourcountry.

For this reason, companies will continue to suppress their cost of operationor increase their margin of profit by taking advantage of the common _ ourenvironment. Polluters know they won’t be held responsible or have to pay fortheir lack of discretion. They know that in case of disaster, the governmentwould step in and use taxpayer money to compensate the victims so that theproblem would stop as soon as possible.

As our environmental law is not that strong, these three conditions _ ifrealised _ would help prevent environmental disaster. Indeed, the environmentalaccountability will be considered a cost and as such, a mine operator would notdare to do their business carelessly as they can be fined heavily. No one wouldrun an aluminium mine without taking care of cadmium leaks either because theywould lose all their profits in compensation and litigation.

Lessons from around the world show that businesses can adapt themselves to beresponsible to the environment without losing their profit. In fact, some showthat both goals are complementary and they actually manage to maintain the samemargin of profit or make it even higher.

But of course, this can happen when society can develop all the threeconditions to take care of its environment.

The future of the Thai environment is worrisome. This is not just because wehave less forest cover, lower level of freshwater reserves, frequent flooding orrepeated patterns of drought but because we don’t have any of the threeconditions necessary to protect our environment. And there is no sign that ourgovernment, now or in the future, would dare to take the political risk andbuild up the three conditions in the foreseeable future.

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