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Monday, August 10, 2009
Living with a dying sea
Now in her 80s, a granny at Ban Pod, a small fishing village in Surat Thani, still has vivid memories of a happy childhood. That should make her glad. Instead, it makes her sad.
Not for herself, though. But for her children and grandchildren, who are helplessly watching their village disappearing and their once abundant sea dying right before their eyes.
Her small house was rattling in the gust of strong wind as we sat and chatted. Little wonder, since it sits right next to the sea. There is no long strip of beach between the village and the sea, like there used to be. Obviously, the concrete barriers to prevent coastal erosion have failed miserably.
"This is the third time I've moved the house inland," says the granny, sighing. "Before long, we will have no land to move to."
The villagers would have felt relieved, however, if coastal erosion had been their only problem. They could have moved further inland across the street and returned to fish in their old sea.
But the sea is no longer their old sea.
Across the street from their village are two mega prawn farms that stretch as far as the eye can see. The bottom of each pond is covered with a huge sheet of plastic. And when it is cleaning time, the mud, the chemicals and all, are cleansed by strong water sprays and flushed right into the canal which flows into the sea at Ban Pod.
After a decade, the sea has become putrid.
"If you have a wound, it won't heal easily and the infection will be very bad," says one villager.
The fish, crabs and many kinds of shellfish, once abundant and taken for granted, have all but disappeared.
Feeling cornered, with the dying sea on one side and toxic waste from prawn farms on the other, the villagers keep moving out.
The number of Ban Pod's residents has plunged from some 400 households to about only 170.
"Can you imagine how it used to be?" the granny reminisced. "When I was young, I just walked in the shallow sea, felt something move beneath my feet, and just picked it up. My basket would be full with crabs and clams in no time at all."
Other villagers heave a long sigh.
Even people in their 40s and 50s can still remember when a family in Ban Pod could easily send their children to university from fishing alone.
Ban Pod used to be famous for healthy, delicious seashells because the brackish water from the canal had turned the sea in front of the village into a perfect breeding ground for crabs, clams, cockles and all kinds of seashell.
That is history now.
"Before, our muddy beach was just about a few inches thick. Underneath, it was full of clams of all kinds," recalls one villager.
With the accumulation of toxic mud waste over the years, the new mud seafloor has become more than 1.5-metres thick, completely covering the clams' old breeding ground.
"What it is now is is a clam graveyard," another villager comments.
But why submit to such abuse? Can anything be done to stop this madness?
Some people in other villages had tried to fight back, say the villagers, but they were no longer breathing.
"That's why we asked you not to reveal our names. It's just too dangerous."
The owner of one prawn farm is an influential politician. The other is a giant agro business with wide connections.
"And who are we?" asks one villager.
But if the authorities saw what was happening with their own eyes, they'd simply have to act, wouldn't they?
I realised this was a silly question when our car drove past the Ban Pod canal. Anchored there is a government patrol boat, sitting empty and ineffectual, while the machine in the prawn farm is in full swing, releasing stinky, foamy waste water into the already dying canal.
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