It's high time to make polluters pay dearly
Pollutants in the Chao Phya River devastated fish farms in Angthong province last week, causing heavy losses to owners who have yet to find anyone taking responsibility for the disaster.
This just a few months after their farms were affected by heavy flooding.
It has yet to be determined whether the fish deaths were caused by tonnes of sugar from a vessel that capsized in the area or wastewater discharged by a factory along the riverbank. The fish farmers rallied to demand a full and fair investigation so that authorities could take legal action against the polluters. They were infuriated by the lack of serious action, with government officials too soft in investigating factory operators to find the culprits.
If the manufacturing plant producing seasoning powder is indeed found to have discharged wastewater that killed the fish, the utmost fine is just Bt200,000 - peanuts by any standard, particularly when we retain outdated laws governing pollution.
In another case, millions of small coastal fish were found belly up on Rayong's coast along with blackened seaweed at the weekend. Pollutants discharged from nearby industrial zones were suspected. Villagers told local authorities it was the first time they had experienced such an incident.
The incident followed months of news reports that plants in the province's Map Ta Phut industrial estate had discharged toxic waste into the air, posing a serious health hazard to residents of nearby areas. Many have fallen ill with cancer and other chronic ailments.
Cases of industrial pollution anywhere in the country, whenever they come to light, are just the tip of the iceberg. The most recent case of river pollution, which put fish farmers in financial difficulties and mental anguish, is just one of many incidents involving industrial waste and blatant violation of rules and measures against pollution.
Industrial pollutants and toxic chemical waste have caused serious problems right from the start of our promotion of industrial investment, wooing foreign investors to set up factories here with incentives and privileges while we had to turn a blind eye to potential threats from pollution.
The problem dates back to the 1960s when we sought import-substitution industrial investment, departing from agriculture, our centuries-old heritage and our lifeline that made us the world's fifth-largest net food exporter after more than amply meeting domestic demand.
After 40 years, we stand at the forefront as a country with an unenviable record in devastation and over-exploitation of natural resources. Vast forest lands and mountainous areas have been denuded due to massive deforestation through illegal logging and slash-and-burn farming by hill tribes in the North.
Our local temperatures show prominence in global weather reports. Kanchanaburi records 41 degrees Celsius while Nakhon Sawan is at 40 and rising. Our provinces in the western, central and northern regions are the hottest areas in this part of the world with the exception of deserts in India and China.
The highest temperature ranges between 42-43 degrees Celsius in some years and we cannot rule out that, not long from now, it may reach 45 degrees, which means a desert-level temperature.
This is plainly due to rapid deforestation, which has made the country look brownish in satellite photos. Over time, we stand a good chance of transforming our land into an arid place with the gradual disappearance of watershed areas and ecological resources.
Burma, Laos, and Cambodia are much smarter than we are in the preservation of natural resources. It's a real shame for us, and thanks to unlimited greed and lack of good sense to avoid over-exploitation of the natural resources we used to have in abundance.
We have exhausted our marine resources in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. Our fishing trawlers have to risk being shot at in foreign waters. We have lost the status of being a major exporter of marine products due to our careless fishing practices.
Excessive promotion of industry, with industrial estates spreading all over the country, and extensive use of agricultural chemicals, have caused serious pollution of 48 rivers nationwide and left toxic waste in our soil for many years to come.
Industrial development was pursued through the sacrifice of agricultural land, reducing productivity and overall production and leaving people in the farm sector undeveloped in terms of education, skills and human-resources training. We once boasted "cheap labour" as an incentive for luring foreign investment, thus debasing the human value of our own people.
Should we carefully and sensibly revise our economic planning so as to preserve the natural resources we still have and restore what is fast disappearing? This requires more than strong political will if we have to get tough with industrial polluters and risk an outcry over the possible loss of investment incentives.
If not, we will have to continue to destroy ourselves; expose our people to more health hazards and bear with increasing toxic waste just to please some potential investors who are not likely to care much about our environment or corporate social responsibility once they get rich enough on the returns from their investment.
When will we make polluters pay very dearly for their crime against the environment?