The ticking time bomb in our midst

opinion April 09, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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With dangerous business allowed to flourish in the heart of our communities, the next disaster is just around the corner

Thailand’s city planners are often left fighting a rearguard action, overwhelmed by unregulated land use and construction. Concern for the safety of residents is either too little, too late or too short-lived to bring changes for a safer environment. Awareness flares up whenever a disaster strikes, but most subsequent “safety” campaigns are just flashes in the pan.
 Two recent incidents in the space of a fortnight illustrate this dismal pattern. 
In Samut Prakan, smoke from a garbage dump that caught fire late last month created a serious health hazard for residents in the surrounding area. That the fire has flared up again is anything but a surprise. In the other incident, a World War II bomb exploded in a scrap yard in suburban Bangkok last week, killing seven and injuring 20. 
These incidents were unrelated, but they do share a common trait typical to Thailand: hazardous businesses located near residential areas.
The human suffering caused by each of these incidents would have been far less had city planning been effectively implemented and the law strictly upheld. Scrap yards like the one at which the bomb exploded are dotted across the city’s residential areas. Who knows how many of them harbour potential for more such disasters, or are the hidden cause of health problems. Likewise, garbage dumps spring up across our cities, with little evidence that operators have considered the harm their toxic waste could cause. 
Thailand doesn’t lack measures for city planning and zoning. But the blueprints are weak, drawn up by planners unable to anticipate problems and prevent them. When it comes to safety and health, we are reactive. Disasters like the Santika pub fire in 2009 provoke a rash of calls for safety in public buildings, but they quickly die down as the tragedy recedes to distant memory.
Meanwhile, without tight planning regulations and their effective implementation, the time bomb goes on quietly ticking towards another disaster. 
If this sounds alarmist, cast your eyes towards the high-rise buildings mushrooming in our cities. Many obviously flout fire regulations, being located on narrow roads that no fire-truck could ever access.
Compounding the lack of forward thinking are the problems with law enforcement. Many tragedies can be traced back to lax enforcement of the rules. Those responsible are neglecting their duty and failing to realise that their work is often a matter of life and death. This failure might come down to simple negligence, but it is often tinged by corruption, whereby law enforcers accept bribes to turn a blind eye.
The full scale of the damage caused by the garbage-dump fire has yet to be revealed, with the latest reports focusing on water contamination. The terrible impact of the scrap-yard explosion was more immediate, but both underline the need for tighter city planning law. These recent incidents serve as a strong reminder that tragedy waits around the corner unless we pay more attention to city planning, zoning and the effective enforcement of building regulation.