Environmental issues in Thailand
The government of Thailand has focused 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 of the Thai government. The Seventh Economic and Social Development Plan seeks to achieve sustainable growth and stability, especially in the petrochemical, engineering, electronics, and basic industries.
Thailand's dramatic economic growth has brought forth environmental challenges to 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 GDP per year. As such, Thailand's economic growth has come at great cost in damage to its people and environment.
Industrial growth has created high levels of air pollution in Thailand. Vehicles and factories contribute to air pollution, particularly in Bangkok.
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% of the national population and over half of the country's factories. Due to a lack of treatment facilities, 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. The standards focus on shifting to lower-emissions vehicle engines and improving public transportation. Environmentally-unfriendly motorbikes represent 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 required to reduce emissions. Bangkok and the rest of the Central Region contribute between 60–70% of the country’s industrial emissions. Most power plants rely on burning fossil fuels.
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, with February and March as the two months when conditions are at their worst. In research conducted between 2005 and 2009 in Chiang Mai, average PM10 rates during these months were found to be well above the country's safety level of 120 μg/m3, peaking at 383 μg/m3 on 14 March 2007. 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.
Forest cover in Thailand has been greatly reduced as people convert forested land to agriculture or misappropriate public lands for private use. Forest cover fell drastically from 53% in 1961 to 25% in 1998. An estimate by the World Wildlife Fund concluded that between 1973 and 2009, Thailand's forests declined by 43%.During the period 2001-2012, Thailand lost 1 million hectares of forest, while restoring 499,000 hectares. Wetlands have been converted to rice paddies and urban sprawl. With a government measures in place to prohibit logging, deforestation rates have dropped, but the impacts of deforestation are still being felt.
Deforestation creates a host of environmental problems: soil erosion, sedimentation of rivers, and loss of natural habitat. 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. It is estimated that Thailand in 1961 had 3,500 km2 of mangrove forests. By 2004 that number was less than 2,000 km2 according to the Thai government.
In June 2015, as a severe drought gripped northeastern Thailand, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha urged farmers to forgo a second rice crop in order to save water. He attributed the drought to massive deforestation. At least 26 million rai (4.2m ha) of forested land, especially forests in the mountainous north, had been denuded, according to the prime minister, who said that forests were needed for the generation of rainfall.
In July 2015, a Bangkok Post editorial summed up Thailand's forestry issues: "Forests have rapidly declined under state policies over the past four decades. Factors include logging, mining, anti-insurgency strategies, promotion of cash crops on the highlands, construction of big dams and promotion of the tourism industry. Corruption is also deep-rooted in forestry bureaucracy."
Field and forest burning
The burning of agricultural fields and forested areas is an yearly event, mainly in the dry month of March, which has become increasingly more destructive and widespread in the northern provinces of Thailand. Northern Thailand currently has the highest rates of lung cancer in the kingdom. The incidence of other chest diseases and cardiac conditions is also high.
Fires occurring in that area fall into three main categories: forest fires, agricultural burning, and roadside burning. Forest fires are deliberately set mainly for the supposedly increased forest product yields, especially the earth star mushroom (Astraeus hygrometricus (Pers.) Morgan, or "hed thob" or "hed phor" in Thai), which has seasonal availability and a high market price. In order to collect these fungi, local farmers use fire either to clear the forest floor to make it easier to find the mushroom or because fire is thought to stimulate the growth of this mushroom. "Cheap and fast" is a shorthand explanation for the intentional use of fire to clear agricultural fields, overgrown roadsides, and open areas. Cattle herders also burn areas to stimulate the growth of Imperata grass which is able to quickly produce new leaves during the hot-dry season. New leaves produced on burnt areas have a higher nutrient value, which is perfect for cattle grazing. Roadside fires are set to clear vegetation from encroaching on roadways. Fires produce large amounts of smoke which stagnates low lying areas, causing eye irritation and respiratory ailments. Large areas of degraded forest are destroyed by fire each year.
Most areas burned are left in poor condition as evidenced by mostly sparse woody, often deformed or stunted growth and many bare areas where nothing grows and severe erosion has occurred. Fire not only destroys forest biodiversity and vegetation and retards forest growth, but also results in erosion, air pollution and flash-flooding. Proper replanting of severely degraded places is often the only remedial action available as natural regeneration has stopped in many places.
In 1950, the newly constituted Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimated that, globally, we were catching about 20 million metric tons of fish (cod, mackerel, tuna, etc.) and invertebrates (lobster, squid, clams, etc.). That catch peaked at 90 million tons per year in the late 1980s, and it has been declining ever since.Thailand is no exception to this decline, despite having 57,141 fishing vessels.
Thailand is a peninsular country of 514,000 km2 with with over 3,565 km of coastline, 2,700 km on the Gulf of Thailand and 865 km on the Andaman Sea. It's exclusive economic zone extends over 306,000 km2. Historically, fish from Thailand's off-shore waters have been a significant provider of protein to the population. In 2001, the average yearly fish consumption was 32.4 kg per capita and provided on average 10-14 grams of protein per capita per day. It provides 40.5% of animal protein sources and 17.6% of total protein. Consumption of fish is almost certainly higher than reported as many fish are caught by smallholders and consumed without passing through the marketplace.
Thailand's marine fish resources are over exploited, and while the catch has increased, the catch per unit of effort (CPUE) has decreased markedly.:1 Put another way, average catches in Thai waters have fallen by 86% since the industry’s large expansion in the 1960s. In 2014, Thailand was 12th in the world (of 215 nations) (1=worst, 215=best) in terms of fish species at risk (96 species).
The over-exploitation of fish stocks in Thailand has led to the creation of a huge aquaculture industry, human trafficking to man fishing vessels voyaging ever further out to sea, and the depletion of "trash fish" as well as marketable juvenile fish to feed the increasing demand for fish meal for farmed shrimp.
On 21 April 2015 the European Commission threatened Thailand, the third-largest seafood exporter in the world, with a trade ban if it did not take action on illegal fishing. The EU, the world's largest imported of fish products, since 2010 has taken action against countries that do not follow international overfishing regulations, such as policing their waters for unlicensed fishing vessels and imposing penalties to deter illegal fishing. Thailand has failed to certify the origin and legality of its fish exports to the EU and now has six months, until October 2015, to implement a satisfactory action plan to address the shortcomings. EU fisheries commissioner Karmenu Vella declared that, "Analysing what is actually happening in Thailand, we noticed that there are no controls whatsoever, there are no efforts whatsoever." The EU imported 145,907 tons of fish products worth €642 million from Thailand in 2014.In the view of the Bangkok Post, "The [Thai] fisheries bureaucracy's record is extremely shabby, resulting in a breakdown in state regulation of commercial trawlers. Fisheries officials are also known to have cosy relationships with trawler operators."
There are four main geographical regions in the country: the north, the central plains, the northeast, and the south. Thailand has a total of 25 river basins in the country and Thailand's annual rainfall is around 1,700 mm. Despite the annual southwest monsoon, Thailand is subject to drought, particularly the northeastern region. As of 2002, Thailand had available less water available per person than any other country in Asia, and nearly one-third of its water was "unsuitable for human consumption." Non-potable water was a result of increasing untreated domestic sewage, industrial waste water, and solid hazardous wastes.
The most critical environmental problem that Thailand faces presently is water pollution. Like air pollution, water pollution is most serious in the populous central region, with high levels of industrial and domestic waste water. The depletion of the water table around Bangkok has led to land subsidence which has exacerbated flooding.
Coastal waters also face challenges. The Gulf of Thailand is polluted by domestic waste water, and further by waste from industry and tourism. High pollution levels are found at the mouths of the Chao Phraya, Tha Chin, Pak Panang, Pattani, and Ranong rivers. Coastal water quality in most areas, however, is within established limits.
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 pollution. Large amounts of arsenic were found in the groundwater in Nakhon Si Thammarat Province, a result of mining 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 source of pollution are the heavy metals that have seeped into the rivers of Thailand. In the Chao Phraya estuary, mercury levels have far exceeded normal standards, and high concentrations of heavy metals on the river bed poses a serious threat to ecosystems.
- Typhoid: 4,000 hospitalizations
- Dysentery: 7,000 hospitalizations
- Diarrhea: 95,000 hospitalizations
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 will support 65% of the population. The most common water treatments are inexpensive to build and maintain. They include 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. Many species are listed as critically endangered because of habitat loss and over-exploitation. The World Bank estimates that, of 214 countries studied, Thailand ranks ninth (1=worst, 214=best) in the world in the number of mammal species (55 species) under threat.
Despite Buddhism's professed reverence for life, even Thai clergy have been guilty of overt animal abuse. One such case, that of Kwan, a Malayan sun bear, egregiously mistreated at Wat Aungsuwan (aka Wat Nong Hoy) in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province has been thoroughly documented by the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT). First alerted to abuse at the temple in January 2012, it was not until three years later that Thai wildlife officials acted on behalf of the mistreated animals.
Conservation in theory
Conservation bills passed 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.
Conservation in practice
Current (2015) national law allows for ivory from domesticated Thai elephants to be sold legally. As an unintended consequence, large quantities of African ivory can be laundered through Thai shops. Only by closing the domestic trade in ivory can Thailand help eliminate the threat to African elephants. Thailand's ivory market is the largest in the world and trade is largely fuelled by ivory from poached African elephant's tusks that are smuggled into the country.
In July 2014, at a CITES intercessional meeting, Thailand agreed to a strict timetable to address the illegal ivory trade or face the threat of trade sanctions. One week before the meeting, the TRAFFIC had released a survey of Bangkok that found significantly more retail shops and three times as much ivory on sale as in 2013. Thailand was given until 30 September 2014 to submit a revised national ivory action plan, to include a number of CITES specified measures. Thailand was to be next assessed by CITES on 31 March 2015. If found lacking, CITES will vote vote on whether trade sanctions should be imposed against the country. The impact of punitive sanctions on the national economy would be significant: all trade in CITES-listed species would be prohibited. The export of orchids by the country's horticultural sector, for example, would be stopped, resulting in a loss of more than US$80 million in annual sales based on the 2013 value of this trade.
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