Environmental issues in Thailand
The government of Thailand has been focusing on the social and economic development of the country for the past 35 years. However, since Thailand introduced the Seventh Economic and Social development plan (1992-1996), protecting the environment has become one of the top priorities for the Thailand government. Seventh Economic and Social development plan seeks to maintain economic growth and achieve sustainable growth and stability, especially in the petrochemical,engineering,electronics and basic industries.
Over the past few decades, Thailand's dramatic economic growth brought about new environmental challenges in the once-agrarian economy. The country presently faces problems with air and water pollution, declining wildlife populations, deforestation, soil erosion, water scarcity, and hazardous waste issues. According to the 2004 indicator, cost of air and water pollution for the country scales up to approximately 1.6% - 2.6% of her GDP per year. As such, Thailand's economic growth has come at great cost in damage to its people and environment.
In the past, forest cover in Thailand has been greatly reduced as people convert forested land for agriculture, such as slash-and-burn agriculture. For example, forest cover fell drastically from 53% in 1961 to 25% in 1998; and more rice fields and urban sprawls have been converted from what was originally wetlands. With a government measure in place to prohibit logging, deforestation rates have dropped. However, the impacts of deforestation, such as erosion, are still being felt.
Further, deforestation is creating other environmental problems as well. These problems include conversions 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. Wetlands and mangroves in coastal areas have been seriously degraded by expansion of commercial fishing, shrimp aquaculture, industry and tourism, causing much of Thailand’s biodiversity losses.
Industrial growth has created high levels of air pollution in Thailand. Vehicles and factories contribute to air pollution, particularly in Bangkok.
In the Bangkok metropolitan area, which consists of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) and the four surrounding provinces (Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, Nakhon Pathom, and Samut Prakan), holds about 20 percent of the national population and over half of the country's factories. Coupled with the concentration of the factories in the metropolitan area, the air pollution caused by motor vehicle emissions, and grave water pollution from household and industrial wastewater, justified that there would be no doubt of the escalation of externalities from production. Further, due to a lack of treatment facilities, the increasing volumes of hazardous substances generated by the thriving industrial activities have caused serious dumping issues. Unless treatment facilities are built and institutions starts to regulate strictly, environmental contamination caused by hazardous waste threatens to become Thailand's worst environmental problem in the future.
The Pollution Control Department and other agencies have developed standards in order to reduce air pollution from certain sources. The standards focus shifting to lower-emission vehicle engines and improving public transportation. Vehicles — motorcycles make up around 75% of the vehicles on the road in Thailand; diesel trucks and buses also contribute many pollutants. In most areas of the country, air pollutants for vehicles are now within acceptable levels according to national standards. Factories and power plants have been also required to reduce emissions. Bangkok and the rest of the Central Region contribute between 60 and 70 percent of the country’s industrial emissions. As regards power plants, most energy production relies on burning of fossil fuels.
Other sources of air pollution include garbage burning, open cooking and agricultural burning practices, including deliberate forest fires. Agricultural burning in southeast Asia often creates a haze. In 2003 Thailand ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution to reduce the haze from forest fires, but issues throughout the region are still common. Wildfires are started by local farmers during the dry season in Northern Thailand for a variety of purposes. They are the main cause of the intense air pollution in the Thai highlands and contribute to the floods in the country by completely denuding the undergrowth of the woods. The dry forest soil leads to lower water intake for the trees to extract when the rains arrive.
The most critical environmental problem that Thailand is facing presently, is the water pollution. Despite the annual southwest monsoon, Thailand is subject to drought, particularly the northeastern region. As of 2002, Thailand had less available water per person than any other country in Asia, and nearly one third of its water was “unsuitable for human consumption.” Unconsumable water was also a result of increasing untreated domestic sewage, industrial wastewater and solid hazardous wastes.
Like air pollution, water pollution is most serious in the populous Central Region, with high levels of industrial and domestic wastewater. The depletion of the water table around Bangkok has led to land subsidence.
Coastal waters also face challenges. The Gulf of Thailand is primarily polluted by domestic wastewater, and further by waste from industry and tourism. In addition to the Gulf, high pollution levels were found at the mouths of the Chao Phraya, Tha Chin, Pak Panang, Pattani and Ranong rivers. Coastal water quality in most areas, however, are within acceptable standards.
Water pollution has become obvious in many areas. In 1997, hundreds of thousands of fish and other aquatic life in the Nam Phong River died as a result of industrial river pollution. Large amounts of arsenic were found in the groundwater in the Nakhon Si Thammarat province, a result of mining industry in the area. Pollution affects the marine environment. Red tides, caused by excessive algae growth and a result of pollution, oil spills, and invasive species are some of the factors that are affecting Thailand's marine biodiversity.
Another major pollution is the heavy metals that have seeped into the rivers of Thailand for many years. In Chao Phraya estuary, mercury levels have far exceeded the normal standards, and such high concentration of heavy metal on the river bed poses a serious threat to ecosystems.
- Typhoid — 4,000 hospitalizations
- Dysentery — 7,000
- Diarrhoea — 95,000
Exposure to toxins and heavy metals in water causes skin disease, liver cancer and birth defects. Klity Creek in Kanchanaburi province was found to carry dangerous levels of lead from a lead separation plant upstream. Lead levels are apparently the cause of many cases of Down syndrome in village children, unidentified illnesses in adults, and many cattle deaths. In 1998, the plant was closed and the creek dredged, although by 2000 lead levels were still considered unsafe.
In 1992, the government passed several pieces of legislation to prevent water pollution; the laws primarily limit industrial water contamination:
- Enhancement and Conservation of National Environment Quality Act (NEQA) of 1992
- Factories Act of 1992
- Navigation in Thai Waterways Act (Volume 14 ) as amended in 1992
- Public Health Act of 1992
- Cleanliness and Tidiness of the Country Act of 1992
The government continues to invest in wastewater treatment plants. In 2000, enough treated water was available to support 29% of the population, with more treatment plants under construction; upon completion, treated water would be able to support 65% of the population. The most common water treatment techniques are inexpensive to build and maintain, including oxidation ditches, aerated lagoons and stabilization ponds. The government is also investigating more effective and modern techniques such as constructed wetlands.
The elephant is Thailand's national symbol. Although there were 100,000 elephants in Thailand a century ago, the population of elephants in the wild has dropped to an estimated 2,000. Poachers have long hunted elephants for ivory, meat and hides. Young elephants are often captured for use in tourist attractions or as work animals, although their use has declined since the government banned logging in 1989. There are now more elephants in captivity than in the wild, and environmental activists claim that elephants in captivity are often mistreated.
Poaching of protected species remains a major problem. Hunters have decimated the populations of tigers, leopards and other large cats for their valuable pelts. Many animals (including tigers, bears, crocodiles and king cobras) are farmed or hunted for their meat, which is considered a delicacy, and for their supposed medicinal properties. Although such trade is illegal, the famous Bangkok market Chatuchak is still known for the sale of endangered species.[unreliable source?]
The practice of keeping wild animals as pets threatens several species. Baby animals are typically captured and sold, which often requires killing the mother. Once in captivity and out of their natural habitat, many pets die or fail to reproduce. Affected populations include the asiatic black bear, Malayan sun bear, white-handed lar, pileated gibbon and binturong.
Large-scale deforestation and development have encroached on many former wildlife habitats, and pesticides in their food supply has reduced bird populations. Several species of sawfish are listed as critically endangered because of habitat loss and overfishing.
Conservation efforts by the government include:
- 1960 Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act
- 1961 National Park Act
- 1964 National Forest Reserve Act
- 1989 Logging ban in natural forests
- 1992 Forest Plantation Act
- 1992 Enhancement and Conservation of National Environmental Quality Act
- 1992 Wild Animals Reservation and Protection Act (WARPA), which forbids or restricts the hunting, breeding, possession, and trade of fifteen reserved animal species and two classes of protected species
Until the acts of 1989 - 1992, conservation policies were difficult to enforce, and often took a back seat to economic development. These acts represented a major shift in Thai policy, and are part of the government’s cooperation with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international wildlife protection agreement.
The government now requires that at least 15% of its land area be protected as forest, and 22% is currently protected as wildlife sanctuaries or national parks. To enforce CITES, the government also maintains border checkpoints to prevent animal smuggling, and works to educate the public about wildlife preservation. Thailand’s Buddhist culture, with its emphasis on respect for all life, has become a key component of the country’s conservation efforts.
Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) arranged activities for the World Environment Day in order to educate and stimulate people to realize the importance and value of biodiversity on world ecosystem and economy.
Currently, there are MOI agencies that will tackle these environmental issues.; including the Department of Industrial Works who will watch on the levels of pollutions in Thailand and assess the need for licensing. The Office of Industrial Environment Management is responsible for the treatment of hazardous. There is a hazardous waste treatment facility in Bangkok and a landfill in Ratchaburi.
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