If you recently ate fresh seafood in Bangkok, there's a good chance some of it came from Bangkok itself. The idea that seafood is cultivated in a city considered a concrete jungle might be surprising. But Bangkok's district of Bang Khunthian touches the Gulf of Thailand and in Bang Khunthian's sub-district, Tha Kam, the vast majority of land is used to farm seafood, particularly shrimp. A district officer estimates that 70-80% of Bang Khunthian's residents are aquaculture farmers. Many have earned their livelihood through this means for generations.
However, in recent years, aquaculture farmers' incomes have dropped precipitously. For those who live on the coast, coastal erosion has been a serious problem -- the shoreline has retreated more than a kilometre since 1952. But another recent problem that adversely affects everyone here, regardless of where they live, is wastewater. Farmers told me that wastewater became problematic a decade ago, around 2009, since when wastewater has been entering aquaculture farms ever more frequently, causing aquatic life to die. The farmers I interviewed stated that wastewater flows spiked between October and December last year. The percentage of productivity and, thus, income losses ranged from 30-90%. Wastewater pollution is a major reason why some are choosing to sell their land.
One said: "Previously locals were quite prosperous. Now we have lost more than three-quarters of our production due to wastewater. Nothing is left, only debt." Another lamented: "I lose about 90% [of produce] to wastewater. I have to buy small shrimp and crabs to grow instead of obtaining them from nature and the sea. In the past, I didn't have to buy; they grew in nature."
There are three major sources of the wastewater: households, factories and agriculture/aquaculture. According to a senior official of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resource, many small houses, such as those in slum areas, do not have septic tanks. But a number of new housing estates also lack septic tanks and thus further pollute waterways with wastewater. Recent statistics confirm that much wastewater is untreated: only 45-53% is processed in the Bangkok conurbation.
Other sources of wastewater are factories, particularly those in Bangkok and Samut Prakan. While large industrial estates have sufficient wastewater treatment facilities, some small factories do not, although by law they are required. While the Pollution Control Department (PCD) sets wastewater standards, the department has had limited manpower since the national government reduced the number of inspection officers about a decade ago. There are now only three inspection officers per province. This is a problem particularly in Samut Prakan, which hosts thousands of factories. Three inspectors cannot possibly inspect all of those factories, so many owners do not bother to comply with wastewater standards.
Agriculture and aquaculture farming have exacerbated the problem of wastewater. For example, pig farms generate significant amounts of waste and some of it runs off into waterways. Additionally, many upstream aquaculture farmers, such as fish and shrimp farmers, do not adequately treat their water, further adding to downstream pollution in waterways. A PCD official proclaimed that while it is illegal to feed fish in rivers because it worsens pollution, many farmers continue to do so.
Besides increasing population and urbanisation in areas upstream of Bang Khunthian, there are a number of underlying political-economic drivers to this wastewater problem. First, as noted by Chiang Mai University academic Louis Lebel, there is a politics of position. Upstream actors, such as local governments, industries, and fish farmers, do not have strong incentives to reduce their wastewater because, flowing downstream, it does not affect them or their area.
Second is the fragmented governance of wastewater. For example, the PCD sets policies for factory wastewater, but it is the Ministry of Industry that is responsible for policy enforcement. Ironically, it seeks to expand industrial growth rather than curb wastewater through enforcing environmental regulations. Moreover, the city's government, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), has a limited mandate to address industrial wastewater. For example, if BMA officers find that factories within their jurisdiction are releasing wastewater, they cannot directly order the factories to stop. Instead, they have to ask the Industrial Factory Department within the Ministry of Industry to do this -- but rarely does this department heed their requests. Similarly, the Ministry of Agriculture has the regulatory power to enforce wastewater standards on fish farmers, but rarely does so.
Third, electoral pressure and lack of representation contribute to this problem. Bang Khunthian farmers have voiced complaints about wastewater to and requested assistance from the BMA. However, as one local community representative complained: "The BMA has done nothing. People here are not happy with them." According to residents, the BMA's inaction is partially because it cares more about voters in the inner city, which is much more densely populated and wealthier.
Fourth, wastewater management is a low priority for national and Bangkok leaders, evidenced by the fact that neither the national government nor the BMA have introduced wastewater tariffs. This means that polluters have no financial disincentives to stop dumping because they do not have to pay for the cost of wastewater treatment.
While there are no easy solutions to this widespread problem, what is evident is that a sustained, collaborative campaign is needed at the national level and within Bangkok. Introducing wastewater fees could certainly reduce the amount of wastewater downstream. Also, strengthening the enforcement capacity, both legally and in terms of manpower, of both the BMA and PCD would enable them to punish homes and factories which are illegally polluting waterways. Finally, an improved warning system is needed so that farmers can prepare and adapt when wastewater is about to enter their ponds.
What is clear is that these farmers need help. They did not create this problem, cannot easily address it, but unfairly suffer its consequences. Bangkok residents certainly would not want to see rising prices or possible contamination of their fresh seafood. So they can play a role by making sure their own wastewater is treated and by pressuring local and national leaders to address this growing problem.
Danny Marks is an assistant professor at the Department of Asian and International Studies of City University of Hong Kong.