Tham Luang saga exposes the need for cave system studies across the country
A DETAILED MAP of the Tham Luang cave, drawn up by veteran cave explorer Martin Ellis, shows specific locations within most of the cave, including the notable Pattaya Beach, but the bottom of the map “continues unexplored”, leaving further details of the cave unknown.
Chaiporn Siripornpibul, a speleologist with the Mineral Resources Department, realised how significant the map was when it came to the rescue of the 12 young footballers and their coach in the days after they became trapped on June 23, and how it would even be more critically helpful if completed.
Without the cave’s topography surveyed and addressed in the map, it was the duty of the team of geologists from the department he joined to figure out the topography in order to locate the high ground and any holes that could link the cave’s main halls_ an alternative route of escape for the Wild Boars team and their assistant coach trapped inside the cave by torrential floods.
“I know the cave as we surveyed it two years before. We immediately analysed all the data we had in order to find out the cave’s topography to address other possible ways to get out of it,” said Chaiporn, recalling the early efforts by some geologists to help in the rescue bid, although in the end their expertise was not required as the boys were rescued in daring dives through the flooded cave complex.
The Tham Luang cave is one of nearly 4,000 caves all over the country that still remain a dangerous mystery as little is known about the cave system.
According to the Mineral Resources Department, around 2,500 caves have been surveyed and located in its geological map and 307 caves have been identified by the Tourism Department as open to visitors.
Of these, 169 caves are located in national parks and forest parks under the supervision of the National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation Department. The Tham Luang cave is located in the 5,000-rai Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park.
Chaiporn, a veteran speleologist who has conducted extensive cave surveys across the country, said caves are the reaction between water and rocks, a result of uplifting Karst landscapes, which leave soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum, exposed to the weather and climates.
Over time, they are dissolved by rainwater and groundwater, resulting in halls within the rocks or caves, as well as other surrounding characters such as sinking streams, sinkholes and springs.
Those soluble rocks within which caves here have been developed through that process can be dated back between 200 to 400 million years, he said. In addition to limestone-based caves, some sandstone erosional caves are also found in the Northeast region, creating a variety of caves.
There are many caves across the country, but very little is known about them although some groups have conducted studies, especially in the North.
The history of cave studies in Thailand goes back as far as the mid-1960s when a group of foreign experts first conducted archaeological surveys in caves.
In the 1970s, a series of more direct cave surveys were conducted by a group of foreign geologists. In the 1980s, caves were further surveyed by foreign survey associations such as the French Cave Survey Association, the Association Pyreneenne de Speleologie, and others, when some caves in the Northeast were surveyed and mapped.
It was not until the late 1990s that a group of Thai researchers, including Chaiporn, veteran caver John Spies, and Dean Smart, came together to study caves scientifically. The result led to the formulation of a study involving archaeology, biology and cave systems, paving the way for cave management.
Their study, funded by the Thailand Research Fund, lasted for two years and focused on caves in the North.
Because of the limitation, most caves nationwide have not yet been scientifically studied, which Chaiporn stresses is a must before any further management is attempted.
Thailand is still in a precarious position for cave management because these caves are not yet classified or evaluated in terms of tourism, education, threats, and other issues.
“I must say that caves are not just holes in mountains. They have value as much as dangers to be managed – archaeological, biological, hydrological and climate, and several others.
“In foreign countries like Romania, cave studies are part of their curriculum, while others have associations running businesses about caves.
“All these reflect a strong body of knowledge about caves developed and put in place in their countries. If we need to manage our caves to meet our purposes, we need to build our own [body of knowledge] too,” said Chaiporn.
An attempt to address issues concerning Thailand’s caves first appeared at the policy level in the 2000s when a national cave management committee was appointed. However, since a new bureaucratic structure took place – which resulted in the separation of the Royal Forestry and the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation – the committee has not functioned and nobody knows whether it still exists, Chaiporn said.
Meanwhile, some 16 caves, along with another 263 natural spots, were selected and subjected to environmental evaluation following the declaration of the year of natural resources and environmental protection by the cabinet in 1989.
The criteria for evaluation, which is supposed to be conducted yearly, was developed and put in place by the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Planning.
It was not until last year that the National Parks Department issued an order to evaluate caves under its supervision, with the results expected in August this year. The department also produced a manual concerning cave management for its staff that introduces cave character, experiences from foreign countries, and others. It notes that caves in Thailand’s parks largely have not been thoroughly surveyed and studied, classified, or evaluated for management.
The near-tragedy at the Tham Luang cave has just reignited the call for policy directives and plans to deal with the threat posed by the country’s caves.
On June 27, the Cabinet resolved to provide directives concerning disaster risk management in recreational spots in the country to concerned ministries including the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry.
The ministry was assigned to work with other concerned agencies to come up with prevention, preparation, and problem-solving measures to better deal with hazards and disasters that may occur in recreational spots nationwide, including waterfalls, caves, and others. Rehearsals were also required so that the public can cope with any situation that may arise.
In response to the new government directives, the National Parks Department, which is mostly responsible for caves that are opened for the public, decided to issue a new order to set up a cave management and development committee. It invited experts from various departments to help in the task.
National Parks chief Thanya Netithammakul said he had also instructed his staff to conduct detailed surveys on caves under their supervision. Other risk-prone nature spots under the department’s supervision were also monitored and if risks were imminent they would be closed, he said.
Thanya expected that in the future there would be a management plan to help guide a response in risk-prone cave areas.
At Tham Luang, the department would be responsible for rehabilitation after the painstaking rescue operation. As well, there would be a management plan that Thanya hoped would help shape new prevention and safety measures for visitors to Tham Luang, in addition to upgrade the national park.
“We have had a hard lesson. In front of caves, from now on, our staff will be standing by, but visitors, on the other hand, should also have knowledge about their visits before leaving home. If not, please ask,” said Thanya.