published : 18 Jan 2013 at 00:00
newspaper section: News
Thailand is in crisis. This crisis does not come from controversies over charter amendment, reconciliation bill, populist policies, or conflicts between the red- and yellow-shirt camps.
The real crisis our country is facing is something that is less complicated than political division, and also easier to tackle if the government has a strong political will and the general public is aware of its devastating impacts.
I'm talking about the environmental crisis. This issue has always been overshadowed by political and economic matters, especially over the past decade when the coup, colour-coded politics, and populist policies dominated the public and government's attention.
Political parties spent most of the time inventing rhetoric and sarcastic remarks to discredit their rivals rather than looking into the real problems of the country.
Middle-class people, the most powerful pressure group, are also preoccupied with their cause which is to condemn anything that will affect their own comfort. They were more willing to join the protest against the banning of the Nua Mek 2 soap opera than pressure the government to clean up lead-contaminated Klity Creek in Kanchanaburi or mercury-tainted canals in Prachin Buri. Although many people have recently raised concerns about the air pollution problem in the city, that was not because they suddenly become aware of its severity, but because they just wanted to criticise the Pheu Thai government's first car-buyers scheme, which will add more than 1 million cars to the streets.
With the extent of public ignorance of the environmental crisis, it is not surprising that when the Pollution Control Department (PCD) released its 2012 pollution report last week, the report was ignored, even though it presents many shocking facts. The report, conducted by the PCD's scientists, found Thailand's pollution is worsening in all aspects.
The quality of water is deteriorating, the amount of accumulated garbage increasing and air pollution worsening.
The number of places where the quality of seawater was excellent fell by almost half, from 36% in 2011 to 15% last year. There is nowhere in the country where the quality of seawater remains "good".
Eighty percent of rivers were of moderate quality, compared to 85% in 2011.
The average level of particles in the air increased to 42 microgrammes per cubic metre, compared with 39 microgrammes per cubic metre in 2011.
The amount of rubbish and waste collected around the country was about 16 million tonnes or 43,000 tonnes a day. Only 36% was properly managed and 10 million tonnes were left as accumulated garbage. These figures clearly tell us that an environmental crisis is already here and it will affect us all if nothing is done to stop it.
In recent times we have also read news reports about residents being affected by air pollution from rock mines and power plants, illegal dumping of hazardous waste, contaminated water resources, and so on.
Like governments before it, the Yingluck Shinawatra administration has ignored environmental problems because they think only about how to maintain their power and popularity and pleasing foreign investors for fear they would move their production bases to other countries.
Since taking office in August 2011, Prime Minister Yingluck has been too busy with overseas trips and publicity stunts to chair the National Environment Board (NEB) and the National Health Commission (NHC). The NEB and NHC, which make decisions on important environmental and health policies, are normally chaired by the prime minister. However, she refused to do the job and assigned her deputies to chair the bodies instead. It's true that the prime minister doesn't have to chair every board and committee and it's reasonable to assign her deputies familiar with the matter to take charge.
However, by chairing the NEB and NHC, Ms Yingluck would send a signal to the public and state agencies that the government takes the environmental issue seriously. Over the past 18 months, the government has talked superficially about environmental issues, usually only when a major mishap occurred.
For example, they talked about reforestation when there was a major flood and expressed concerns about toxic chemical accidents following a blast at a Map Ta Phut factory last year.
Although the Pheu Thai government has claimed success in implementing its election promises, it has failed to perform a very basic duty, which is to protect the environment and strictly enforce environmental laws.
Kultida Samabuddhi is Deputy News Editor, Bangkok Post.