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Tuesday, October 13, 2009
The lily pond of Map Ta Phut
Any (good) student of environmental management would have heard of the lily pond metaphor. For those who haven't, the story goes like this. Suppose you have one pond, in which a water lily grows. The plant doubles in size each day. If nothing is done _ no water added, no expansion made to the pond's size -- the lily will cover the whole pond thus kill all living organisms in it in 30 days.
The question is if you want to cut the lily when it covers only half of the pond, what day would it be?
The answer is it will be the twenty-ninth day: you will have only one day to save the pond -- and all life forms that depend on it.
The analogy is often invoked to illustrate the effects of population growth. However, I think it's an apt one for Map Ta Phut industrial estate too.
As the lily pond story illustrates, the way our ecology works is that you don't notice when resources are being depleted until the threshold to collapse is near. On the twenty-ninth day, half of the pond remains uncovered. There seems to be a lot of open water left when indeed the lily plants are choking the system and resources are being used up.
If we take this ecology approach and apply it to Map Ta Phut, we might see that the effects that we have seen can be but a tip of the iceberg _ a small lily plant that seems to pose no threat. If allowed to go on unchecked, however, the seemingly innocuous effects could choke the area's support system and probably overshoot it in such a short time it would be impossible for us come up with any mitigation measures.
The Map Ta Phut industrial estate was open in 1988. It has been home to heavy industries -- cement, petrochemical, iron and metals as well as refineries for two decades. There is no question that these industries have caused pollution. According to the Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand's website itself, pollution problems have been registered since 2000. These include disturbing smell, drought and water shortage brought about a competition for water resources between the community and the industrial sector, shallow-well water contamination and health problems.
According to a column by Chang Noi, the impact of pollution on local people began to go out of control by that time.
``The incidence of leukaemia is five times the national average. Ten carcinogenic compounds are present in the atmosphere in high concentrations. An unusually large number of genetic defects are found among children born in the area. The National Cancer Institute documented high rates of respiratory disease and lung cancer. A 2006 report found that the accumulation of heavy metals in the local environment far exceeded safety levels-cadmium by six times, manganese by 34 times, lead by 47 times, iron by 151 times.''
As the government and business groups are trying to get around with the court's injunction which bars 76 industrial projects from operating in the 20,000-rai estate, they may have thought that there is still ``a lot of empty space'' and that they can probably wait a little longer before they start to cut back on the industrial growth. But a good environmental management student could have told them about the lily pond story. And they might figure out that they can't wait until half the pond is covered because then they will only have one day to save the industrial estate and all living things in the area.
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