Potash mining a test of PM's mettle

Potash mining a test of PM's mettle

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin's CEO-style warning to potash mining companies -- "Get moving or face replacement" -- has raised eyebrows, prompting a call for leadership that prioritises the well-being of the majority and environmental sustainability over short-term interests.

The threat stems from skyrocketing fertiliser prices blamed on the shortage of potash and mining companies' incompetency rather than the government. However, the push for increasing potash production overlooks environmental concerns and the government's duty to ensure public safety.

The push is based on the assumption the prices of chemical fertiliser will come down when the mines can produce more potash, an important component of chemical fertiliser.

This is a flawed, overly simplistic assumption. Nearly 100% of chemical fertiliser in Thailand is imported, and the fertiliser spike is due to rising oil prices, the Russia-Ukraine war, logistics problems and the Covid-19 pandemic.

More importantly, while the Northeast has a lot of potash, potash mining worsens soil salination, rendering it unfit for farming. Polluted waste water further damages farmland and water sources, affecting villagers' health and livelihoods.

As a result, the potash mines in Chaiyaphum, Udon Thani, and Nakhon Ratchasima all face opposition from locals and environmental groups. Their grievances have also been scientifically confirmed.

In June, Dan Khun Thot villagers in Nakhon Ratchasima protested the potash mine contaminating their land and water. Soil analysis by the Synchrotron Light Research Institute (SLRI) showed over 10,000 rai near the mine contaminated with salt, potash, and heavy metals.

Potash extraction brings up underground salt, so to safeguard the environment and communities, the government should have halted mining and investigated the wastewater systems at Dan Khun Thot and other mines.

Using the threat of replacement against potash mining concessionaires for not starting operations also raises questions. Thailand has three potash mining companies: Kali Co Ltd in Dan Khun Thot, Nakhon Ratchasima; Asean Potash Chaiyaphum in Chaiyaphum; and Asia Pacific Potash Corporation Ltd in Udon Thani, all with 25-year concessions.

Mining companies aren't subordinate to company CEOs. Revoking concessions without due process could harm the country, as seen during the Prayut government's dispute with Akara gold mine. They could also exploit the prime minister's order to bulldoze the environment without care.

The claim that more potash will make chemical fertiliser cheaper is also questionable. Potash is vital, but so are phosphate from China and nitrogen from the petrochemical industry. Former Minister Praphat Panyachatrak wants the government to clarify how local potash production will cut fertiliser costs, given that Thais still buy expensive gas despite local production.

Chemical fertiliser is the main cost of rice farming, and higher costs have made Thai rice less competitive in international rice markets. Prolonged use of farm chemicals also degrades soil quality, increasing the need for fertiliser and decreasing rice productivity compared to neighbouring countries.

According to a study by ETH Zurich's David Wupper, Thailand uses nitrogen fertilisers with an estimated efficiency of just 38.22%, so while the plants are nourished much is wasted and contributes to environmental damage instead.

The government should reconsider the agriculture industry's reliance on chemical fertiliser and follow the advice of Kasikorn Research Centre by reducing investment costs and overuse.

It must also acknowledge scientific evidence on the adverse impacts of potash mining and excessive chemical fertiliser use. More importantly, it should listen to villagers' concerns and grievances.

Soil salination from potash mines is forcing Dan Khun Thot villagers to abandon farming and polluted reservoirs, rivers and lakes deprive them of clean drinking water. Damaged sewage systems pose environmental and health risks to all communities near potash mines.

The law allowing mining companies to use stetches of waterways and tunnels that run underneath the villagers' own land without compensating those villagers for the privilege should also be amended to protect the public interest.

The prime minister must prioritise the well-being of Thais, safeguard the environment and address community concerns with policies that demonstrate foresight and the prioritisation of sustainability without succumbing to the clamour of corporate short-term interests that do not benefit the country in the long run.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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