South link needs clarity

South link needs clarity

As plans for a southern land bridge make the headlines once again, doubts are growing on whether the multi-billion-baht project will ever materialise, despite its economic benefits.

Last week, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered a new feasibility study for a land bridge in the South, which would connect the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.

According to him, as the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) alone won't be enough to boost the economy in the long run, the government had to look for another megaproject to invest in. Ultimately, it was decided that a land bridge would be a good choice.

Two projects were considered -- in addition to the land bridge, the government also looked at building the Kra Canal, which would allow ships to travel from the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea without having to go around the Malacca Strait. It would save about two days in trip time, which could be a boon for Thailand's economy.

However, Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob said recently that building a canal across the South isn't appropriate given the current economic situation.

In his view, the minister added, the project isn't even feasible, unlike the 100-billion-baht land bridge development, which would see the construction of seaports, a dual-track railway and a highway linking the coasts.

The project's location -- which would have seen Pak Bara district in Satun linked to Songkhla's deep-sea port -- has been changed, following opposition from residents and environmental conservation groups.

They said the project will destroy one of Thailand's remaining marine paradises and annihilate the region's flourishing tourism industry, ruining the livelihood of thousands.

The new proposal will see a 109-kilometre link constructed between Chumphon and Ranong. This makes sense considering that at present, shipments from Ranong's deep-sea port can't make their way to Laem Chabang port in Chon Buri, without having to detour around the Malacca Strait.

The project is touted to become a gateway to the EEC on the Andaman Sea, which would amplify the corridor's significance in the region, particularly because China's Belt and Road Initiative is set to pass through the region.

However, this rosy picture could end if the government failed to learn from the mistakes it made in Pak Bara.

The government failed to inform residents about the impact of the myriad of heavy industries and supertankers that would dock at the port. Then, the government also failed to tell them that the port will be constructed on reclaimed land that would stretch several kilometres from the coast, which would harm traditional fishing grounds and the overall marine ecosystem.

These mistakes ultimately derailed the project.

The new proposal will be subject to an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and public hearings, but past reports have shown that EIA processes were often abused and the forums held didn't actually reflect the voice of affected communities.

The lack of transparency around projects, especially those with potentially harmful environmental and social impacts, can leave communities vulnerable to abuses, such as corruption and bribery, which lie at the centre of current concerns.

The land bridge's economic returns are not the issue here, but the lack of transparency, public participation and rampant graft is.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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