Environmental issues in Thailand
Thailand introduced its Seventh Economic and Social Development Plan (1992–1996), declaring that protecting the environment was a top priority of the Thai government. The plan sought to achieve sustainable growth and stability, especially in the petrochemical, engineering, electronics, and basic industries.
Thailand's dramatic economic growth has caused numerous environmental issues. The country faces problems with air and water pollution, declining wildlife populations, deforestation, soil erosion, water scarcity, and waste issues. According to a 2004 indicator, the cost of air and water pollution for the country scales up to approximately 1.6–2.6 percent of GDP per year. As such, Thailand's economic growth has come at great cost in damage to its people and environment.
- 1 Climate change
- 2 Rising sea level
- 3 Deforestation
- 4 Air pollution
- 5 Field and forest burning
- 6 Overfishing and illegal fishing
- 7 Waste management
- 8 Water pollution
- 9 Wildlife
- 10 Domestic animal welfare
- 11 Governmental indifference
- 12 Murder of environmental activists
- 13 See also
- 14 References
- 15 Further reading
- 16 External links
Vulnerability and governmental response
Some tropical ecosystems are being decimated by climate change far faster than expected—bleaching of coral reefs is one example—while many more habitats may be damaged over time. Tropical ecosystems appear to be particularly vulnerable because tropical species have evolved within very specific, narrow temperature ranges. With escalating temperatures, they may simply not survive.
Extreme heat in Southeast Asia today reduces working hours by 15 to 20 percent, and that figure could double by 2050 as climate change progresses, according to a paper published in Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health. The paper projects a loss of six percent of Thailand's GDP by 2030 due to a diminution of working hours caused by rising temperature. A paper published in Nature, by Mora, et al., forecasts that "...things will start going haywire in the tropics at around [sic] the year 2020,..."
NASA reported that 2016 will be the hottest year ever recorded in 136 years of modern record keeping. Locally, the Thai Meteorological Department reported that the temperature in Mae Hong Son Province reached 44.6 degrees C on 28 April 2016, breaking Thailand's "hottest day" record.:20 April in Thailand is typically hot, but 2016's hot weather set a record for the longest heat wave in at last 65 years. In its WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2016, the World Meteorological Organization confirmed that 2016 was the hottest year in Thailand's history.:6-7
The FAO's The State of the World's Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016 reports that a recent study finds that climate change will affect food security in Asia by the middle of the 21st century. It counts Thailand's fisheries as among the most negatively impacted considering all environments—freshwater, brackish-water, and marine fisheries.:133
Researchers at Stanford and the University of California, studying historical records of how temperature affects economies, predict that, given current trends, global income will be 23 percent less by the end of the century than it would be without climate change. The decline in income is not evenly distributed, with tropical regions hardest hit. The study estimates that Thailand's GDP will have declined by 90 percent in 2099 relative to GDP 2016.
Thailand's CO2 emissions per capita rose from 0.14 tonnes in 1960 to 4.5 tonnes in 2013 while the population rose from 27 million to 67 million over the same period.
The Thai government's Climate Change Master Plan, 2012-2050 foresees that "Thailand is able [sic] to continue its economic, social, and environmental developments in accordance with sufficiency economy philosophy and to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, without impeding the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) or reducing its growth of developmental capability and competitiveness."
Paris climate agreement
Thailand submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on 1 October 2015. It pledged a 20–30 percent reduction in its emissions of greenhouse gases by 2030. Thailand sent 81 representatives, at a cost of 20 million baht, to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21 or CMP 11) in Paris, 30 November – 11 December 2015. Thailand signed the Paris Climate Agreement on 22 April 2016 at the official signing ceremony, and ratified its adherence to the treaty on 21 September 2016.
National pledges in Paris equate to a 3 °C increase in global temperatures according to climate scientists. Negotiators in Paris worked to bring this down to 2 °C, but even this lower number may be "... be catastrophic for Bangkok", forcing the abandonment of the city by 2200 at the latest and by 2045-2070 at the earliest. In a paper published on 1 March 2016, climate researchers James Hansen and Makiko Sato state that, "The tropics...in summer are in danger of becoming practically uninhabitable by the end of the century if business-as-usual fossil fuel emissions continue,..." In 2015, Bangkok averaged 29.6 °C, 1.6 °C higher than normal.
Rising sea level
The ground under Bangkok is sinking around three centimetres per year. Built on an alluvial plain of soft clay, the subsidence is exacerbated by excessive pumping of groundwater by industry and by the weight of massive buildings. According to Thailand's National Reform Council (NRC), without urgent action, Bangkok could be under water by 2030 due to the combination of rising sea levels, groundwater extraction, and the weight of city buildings.
Forest cover in Thailand has been greatly reduced as people convert forested land to agriculture or misappropriate public lands for private use. Estimates vary. The Sueb Nakhasathien Foundation reports that 53 percent of Thailand was covered by forest in 1961 but forested areas had shrunk to 31.6 percent in 2015. An estimate by the World Wildlife Fund concluded that between 1973 and 2009, Thailand's forests declined by 43 percent. During the period 2001–2012, Thailand lost one million hectares of forest, while restoring 499,000 hectares. Between 1990 and 2005, Thailand lost 9.1 percent of its forest cover, or around 1,445,000 hectares. As of 2016[update], Thailand has an average annual deforestation rate of 0.72 percent. Wetlands have been converted to rice paddies and urban sprawl. With government measures in place to prohibit logging, deforestation rates have dropped, but the impacts of deforestation are still being felt.
In early-2017, the government committed to increase its forest cover to 40 percent within 20 years. Thailand has three square meters of green area per capita. Singapore has 66 m2 per capita and Malaysia, 44 m2.
In November 1988 heavy rains washed away the soil of newly deforested slopes, causing massive floods. Villages and agricultural land were swamped. Almost 400 people and thousands of domestic animals were killed. The Thai government banned logging on 14 January 1989, revoking all logging concessions. Unintended consequence: the price of timber tripled in Bangkok, unleashing an orgy of illegal logging.
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."
Mangroves and beach erosion
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.
According to Thailand's deputy transport minister, some of Thailand's attractive beaches may be lost within ten years. "If we don't do anything, there will be no attractive beaches left", he said. The marine department, part of the transport ministry, manages Thailand's 3,000 km of shoreline in 23 coastal provinces. Some 670 km of shoreline exhibits severe erosion, with land being lost to the sea at a rate of more than five metres per year. To combat erosion, sections of Pattaya Beach in Chonburi Province are being topped up with more than 300,000 m3 of sand at a cost of 429 million baht. A two kilometre stretch of Chalatat Beach in Songkhla is being restored at a cost of 300 million baht.
Industrial growth has created high levels of air pollution in Thailand. Vehicles and factories contribute to air pollution, particularly in Bangkok.
The Bangkok metropolitan region, 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. Due to a lack of treatment facilities, increasing volumes of hazardous substances generated by 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.
Thailand's Pollution Control Department (PCD) 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. In 1999, 80% of the motorcycles on the road in Bangkok had environmentally unfriendly two-stroke engines. 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 percent of the country's industrial emissions. Most power plants rely on burning fossil fuels.
Agricultural burning in Southeast Asia often creates 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 (microgrammes per cubic metre), 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 trees to extract when the rains arrive.
In February 2016, Director-General Chatchai Promlert of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department, said that the haze affecting northern Thailand has reached levels that can be considered harmful to health. He said that the Pollution Control Department had reported that the levels of particulates measuring less than 10 micrometres—known as PM10—had crossed the prescribed safe threshold of 120 in four out of nine provinces where monitoring was conducted. The level of PM10 in the nine regions—Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Lampang, Lamphun, Mae Hong Son, Nan, Phrae, Phayao and Tak—was measured at between 68 and 160. The haze level was considered unhealthy in Chiang Mai, Lampang, Lamphun, and Phrae Provinces.
During the burning season 2016 (February–April), air pollution has shown no improvement despite the government's purported efforts to ameliorate the burning. The Mae Sai District of Chiang Rai Province recorded a record 410 µg/m3 of harmful air particles in the early morning of 25 March 2016.
From January–July 2016 the five Thai cities with the highest annual average concentrations of PM2.5 were Chiang Mai, Lampang (Mae Moh), Khon Kaen, Bangkok and Ratchaburi. Seven out of the eleven cities measured (63.6 percent) did not reach the National Ambient Air Quality Standard annual limit of 25 μg/m3 for PM2.5 and all 11 cities measured did not reach the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline annual limit of 25 μg/m3. Thailand's national air quality standards are weak when compared to WHO recommendations. In the first six months of 2017, Greenpeace Thailand monitored PM2.5 in 14 provinces, as they have done since 2015, and found that every station recorded levels higher than the WHO recommendation of less than 10 milligrams per cubic meter of air. PM2.5 refers to airborne particulates smaller than 2.5 microns, particles so small that they can be inhaled into the blood system and cause cancer and heart disease. Chiang Mai, Tak, Khon Kaen, Bangkok, and Saraburi were among the worst cities with the highest PM2.5 levels in 2017.
Field and forest burning
The burning of agricultural fields and forested areas is a 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.
According to the Bangkok Post, corporations in the agricultural sector, not farmers, are the biggest contributors to smoke pollution. The main source of the fires is forested area being cleared to make room for new crops. The new crops to be planted after the smoke clears are not rice and vegetables to feed locals. A single crop is responsible: maize. The haze problem began in 2007 and has been traced at the local level and at the macro-market level to the growth of the animal feed business. "The true source of the haze...sits in the boardrooms of corporations eager to expand production and profits. A chart of Thailand's growth in world corn markets can be overlaid on a chart of the number of fires. It is no longer acceptable to scapegoat hill tribes and slash-and-burn agriculture for the severe health and economic damage caused by this annual pollution." These data have been ignored by the government. The end is not in sight, as the number of fires has increased every year for a decade, and data show more pollution in late-February 2016 than in late-February 2015.
Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group, Thailand's largest agro-industrial and food conglomerate, and the leading purchaser of northern maize, in March 2016 announced an "agricultural social enterprise" to steer Nan Province's Pua District villagers away from maize farming. CP Group has incurred criticism for the way it purchases maize harvests for animal feed from farmers in Nan and other provinces. Suphachai Chearavanont, vice-chairman of CP Group, said that corn planters will be encouraged to grow cash crops such as coffee, which requires less farmland and makes a higher profit than maize. Not only will this address deforestation, he said, but it will also help reduce the spring haze in the north which is caused by slash-and-burn practices to prepare land for the next maize season. Mr Suphachai said crops like coffee take about three-and-a-half years to show a yield, but stated that CP Group would stand by farmers and provide assistance in the meantime.
"Cheap and fast" is a shorthand explanation for the intentional use of fire to clear 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.
Overfishing and illegal fishing
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 and more than 300,000 people employed by the fishing industry. According to the Thai Department of Fisheries, Thailand has 11,000 registered trawlers and "about" 2,000 illegal trawlers.
The sheer number of Thai fishing vessels is a key contributor to overfishing. Even the president of the Thai Tuna Industry Association (TTIA), Chanintr Chalisarapong, acknowledges this. "You don't need to be a scientist to know that we're overfishing,..." said Chalisarapong. "We have to stop building new boats. Catch has to come from local fishermen using pole and line methods....We need to have less [sic] boats and less gear."
Thailand is a peninsular country of 514,000 km2 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 percent of animal protein sources and 17.6 percent 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. Thailand's marine capture averaged 2,048,753 tonnes from 2003-2012; in 2014 the catch was 1,559,746 tonnes, a decrease of 23.9 percent.:11 The catch per unit of effort (CPUE) has decreased markedly.:1 Put another way, average catches in Thai waters have fallen by 86 percent 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 importer 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."
In a press release dated 21 April 2016, the European Commission updated its assessment of Thailand's progress, saying, "The dialogue is proving difficult and there remain serious concerns about the steps taken by Thailand to fight IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fishing activities. This means that further action by the Commission cannot be ruled out. A meeting with the Thai authorities in May  will be a new opportunity for them to show their good will and commitment."
When Thailand was a rural, agrarian society, garbage was of no concern as everything was made of natural products such as banana leaves. Waste could be discarded to decompose naturally. Today, according to one observer, "...it would not be an exaggeration to say that every locality in the country is...mired in its own garbage." Thailand's Pollution Control Department estimates that each Thai produces a daily average of 1.15 kg of solid waste, amounting to over 73,000 tonnes daily nationwide. Thailand had 2,490 dump sites in 2014, but only 466 of them were of sanitary landfill caliber. Twenty-eight million tonnes of waste were left unprocessed. Bangkok's canals are awash in sewage, but also serve as dump sites. After recent severe flooding, tonnes of refuse blocked water gates, preventing drainage. At one water gate, more than five tonnes of debris had accumulated, consisting of everything from everyday consumer product waste to large items such as mattresses and furniture.
Increasingly, plastic is the scourge of Bangkok's network of storm water pumping stations, clogging pumps during seasonal downpours and regularly turning thoroughfares into muddy rivers. Thailand is considered to be one of the world's largest consumers of plastic bags. Government figures suggest that the average Thai uses eight plastic bags a day. In contrast, the average person in France uses around 80 a year. In a 2015 report, the conservation group Ocean Conservancy estimated that just five countries—China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand—were responsible for over half of plastic waste dumped into the ocean. Mr Narong Ruengsri, head of Bangkok's drainage department, said removing plastic from the canals and drainage system is a constant battle. "Every day we go fish out around 2,000 tons of waste from the drainage channels," he told AFP. Official figures show the 11,500 tonnes of garbage Bangkok produces each day, at least one tonne of which is plastic, is growing by 10 percent a year. Officially only 16 percent is recycled.
Thailand's Pollution Control Department reports divide the country into five main geographical regions: north, northeast, central, south, and east. 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 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. This is a critical environmental problem for Thailand. According to the Pollution Control Department, the agricultural sector is the largest polluter as the nation's farms discharged up to 39 million cubic metres of wastewater per day in 2016. The industrial sector ranked second, discharging 17.8 million cubic metres per day. The residential sector ranked third with 9.6 million cubic metres per day. Wastewater treatment processes in the residential sector were only 18 percent effective, while only 52 percent of wastewater was treated.
In 2003, Thailand's Pollution Control Department (PCD) monitored the quality of 49 rivers and four lakes in Thailand. Findings revealed that 68 percent of water bodies surveyed were suitable for agriculture and general consumption. Only less than 40 percent of Thailand's surface waters were in poor or very poor quality. According to the survey of major rivers and lakes by PCD, no surface water was categorized as "very good" quality (clean water suitable for aquatic animals and human consumption after normal treatment).
Surface water quality varies widely in the different regions in Thailand. Surface water monitored in the northern, central, and southern regions appear to have poor quality, while water in the eastern region was fair. Compared to other regions, the rivers and lakes monitored in the northeastern region had good quality surface water.
In terms of dissolved oxygen (DO), surface water in the northern region ranks the best, approximately 6 mg/L, followed by the northeastern region with DO concentrations of around 4 mg/L. The central, eastern, and central regions rank the lowest, about 2 mg/L. The highest concentration of total coliform bacteria (TCB), among surface waters monitored, was found in the central region with concentrations of TCB higher than 4,000MPN (most probable number)/100mL.
In 2003, PCD set up 240 monitoring stations in Thailand's 23 coastal provinces and significant islands. In 2003, monitoring results showed that coastal water of 68 percent of the stations were in "very good" and "good" quality. Thirty percent of the stations were in "fair" condition and only three percent were in "poor" quality. Compared with past data, coastal water quality was shown to have deteriorated, specifically in the areas into which four main rivers flow. The chief determinants of pollution were DO and TCB.
Water quality in the inner Gulf of Thailand, into which the Chao Phraya, Tha Chin, Pak Panang, and Rayong Rivers and several canals discharged, revealed high concentrations of domestic pollutants. Very low DO levels (0.3, 1.8, 3.5 mg/L) were found in the areas of Klong 12 Thanwa, Mae Klong and Tha Chin, respectively. Additionally, TCB and heavy metal levels appeared to be higher than allowable standards in the same area. Moreover, in Bang Pakong District the level of total suspended solids (TSS) appeared to be high.
The western seaboard generally appeared to have "good" water quality. However, TCB levels in some areas where domestic waste water discharged into the sea without treatment exceeded the standard. Water quality in most areas of the eastern seaboard was in "good" condition, except for high levels of total suspended solids and TCB in the areas of Laem Chabang and Map Ta Phut. Despite rapid growth, overall coastal water quality in the Andaman Sea were still in "very good" condition, except for the few areas that revealed concerns of DO and TCB levels.
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.
In March 2017 Associate Professor Thon Thamrongnawasawat, vice dean of the fisheries faculty of Kasetsart University, said, "... there is something terribly wrong with the Thai sea [Gulf of Thailand]." His observation followed on the deaths of two Bruda whales and two whale sharks in the Gulf of Thailand since the beginning of the year. The latest casualty is a 12-metre Bruda whale weighing about two tonnes. It washed ashore in Village Nine of Tambon Thongchai, Bang Saphan District, Prachuap Khiri Khan Province. Earlier, one six-month old Bruda whale was found dead on the beach of Ban Kung Tanod in Tambon Khao Daeng, Kui Buri District of Prachuap Khiri Khan. Two dead whale sharks that washed ashore in the past 70 days were entangled in ropes. As of 2017[update] there are only an estimated 100 whale sharks and about 50 Bruda whales remaining in the gulf.
Groundwater is mainly recharged by rainfall and seepage streams. Aquifers yield a large amount of water throughout Thailand, with the exception of the eastern region. The largest source of groundwater is found in the lower central region, particularly in the Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) and surrounding provinces, and is being used to meet the growing water demand, growing at 10 percent annually. The depletion of the water table around Bangkok has led to land subsidence which has exacerbated flooding. Unlike other regions, some ground water extraction data is available for the central region.
Agricultural run-off, coastal aquaculture, industrial effluents and domestic sewage are responsible for the pollution of groundwater in Thailand. Also, the lack of an appropriate pricing policy is leading to over-exploitation of groundwater beyond sustainable yield levels. There is limited information on groundwater extraction rates, or the extent of contamination at the national level.
An on-going case of surface- and groundwater pollution has prompted one critic to charge that, "...Thai environmental protection mechanisms including environmental laws and law enforcement are not functioning." He is referring to a case in Ratchaburi Province: there, since at least 2001, villagers of tambon Nam Pu have complained about toxic wastewater from an industrial waste treatment plant they suspected of contaminating their water. Wax Garbage Recycle Centre, an industrial waste treatment plant, began its operation in the upstream area of Nam Pu Creek about the same time as contamination became evident. The pollution spread to tambon Rang Bua of Chom Bueng District. Responding to complaints, the Thai Pollution Control Department tested creek water and groundwater. It found that levels of heavy metals (lead, nickel, and barium) exceeded their standards. They also found high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOC) such as toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene, benzene, 1,1,2-trichloromethane and Cis-1,2-dichloroethylene. The Department of Industrial Works and Ratchaburi's Industry Office, since 2002, have sent 19 letters ordering the plant to improve its operation, and at least six orders for the plant to shut down parts of its facility. Despite efforts by the authorities, the plant is still in operation and toxic wastewater contamination continues unabated. A failing of Thai environmental governance is the lack of balance in regulatory power among authorities. The Pollution Control Department, for instance, has no power to revoke the plant's operating licences. That power resides with the Department of Industrial Works, but state agencies place greater importance on industrial economics than the environment.
- 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 percent of the population, with more treatment plants under construction. Upon completion, treated water will support 65 percent 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.
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.
In 2016, the body of the last known dugong in the Gulf of Thailand, identified by marine biologists as DU-391, was found off the coast of Rayong. Number 391 refers to it being the 391st dead dugong to be found there. The decline of vulnerable species in the gulf continued unabated, as 355 protected animals died since January 2016, a 10 percent increase over 2015. The 355 dead marine animals included 11 dugongs, 180 sea turtles, and 164 dolphins and whales.
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 percent of its land area be protected as forest, and 22 percent 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 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.
Domestic animal welfare
Thailand introduced its first animal welfare laws in 2014. The Prevention of Animal Cruelty and Provision of Animal Welfare Act came into being on 27 December 2014.
The law protects animals "raised as pets, as animals for work, as beasts of burden, as friends, as livestock, as performing show animals, or for any other purpose, no matter with or without owners". Owners of animals are now required by law to "raise, nurture and keep the animals in appropriate conditions with good health and sanitation and with sufficient food and water". Within the act, the term "owner" is deemed to cover all family members and domestic help, as well as any friends assigned to take care of a pet.
Menus featuring live vertebrates are now illegal in Thailand. Trading in and consuming dog and cat meat is now illegal in Thailand under the 2014 act. Feeding live prey to snakes, crocodiles or other animals is also prohibited.
The act prohibits neglect, torture, or uncaring transport of live animals. Neglect includes improper housing and transportation of animals. An infraction is punishable by law, which may impose a two-year prison term and a fine of up to 40,000 baht (US$1,663), or both. Persons who dump unwanted pets at temples can now be charged with abandoning and endangering the animal.
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military junta that took power in Thailand in May 2014, has taken a cavalier attitude towards environmental concerns. In early-March 2016, the NCPO issued Order No. 9/2016, designed to cut short the process of conducting environmental impact assessments (EIA) on mega-projects. This makes it possible for state agencies to fast track public projects related to transportation, water management, public health, and prevention of public dangers. The order allows state projects to be proposed to the cabinet before a full EIA is completed.
Junta order No.4/2016, signed on 20 March 2016 by Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha in his capacity as the chair of the Committee on National Energy Policy was published in the Royal Thai Gazette on 31 March 2016. It exempts 29 plants, 27 of them run by the state, from all laws related to city planning. The planned construction of coal-fired plants in Thepha District in Songkhla Province and in Nuea Khlong District of Krabi Province have both met with strong opposition from locals who are concerned about their environmental impact.
Murder of environmental activists
In November 2016, the UN's regional human rights office (OHCHR) condemned Thailand for a series of murders of land activists which have gone unpunished, drawing attention to the kingdom's poor record in solving such killings. The office said it was compelled to speak out after an appeals court in Thailand's south upheld the acquittal of the sole suspect in the murder of an activist in 2015. Thailand has long been a dangerous place in which to take on powerful interest groups. A 2014 report by Global Witness said Thailand was the eighth most dangerous country in the world to be a land rights activist, the second most dangerous in Asia after the Philippines. Rights groups say between 50-60 rights defenders have been murdered in the last 20 years. There are also at least 81 open cases of enforced disappearance dating back as far the mid-1990s, according to the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances.
- On 21 June 2004, Charoen Wat-aksorn was assassinated as he alighted from a bus returning to Prachuap Khiri Khan after he gave testimony about environmental destruction in Bo Nok and Ban Krut to the Senate in Bangkok. Charoen was a human rights defender and leader of the Love Bo Nok group who fought for over ten years until his death against coal-fired power, large-scale shrimp farming, and other environmental destruction in Prachuap Khiri Khan.
- Porlajee Rakchongcharoen, known as "Billy", a Karen environmental activist, was reportedly arrested on 17 April 2014, in Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi Province by a park superintendent and four other park officers. He was detained because he was found with a protected wild bee honeycomb and six bottles of honey. He has not been seen since. It is feared that he was murdered because of his activism. Billy's disappearance came three years after he assisted Karen villagers of Pong Luk Bang Kloy to file a lawsuit against the superintendent for ordering the eviction and burning of the village in May 2011. On 30 January 2017, Thailand's Department of Special Investigation (DSI) said that it would not investigate his disappearance, leaving it in the hands of the regular police despite three years of no progress in the case.
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- The New York Times reports that "Thailand is among the world's most dangerous countries in which to oppose powerful interests that profit from coal plants, toxic waste dumping, land grabs or illegal logging. Some 60 people who spoke out on these issues have been killed over the past 20 years,..."
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