Green wastewater project mired in controversy

Bangkok Post 7 May 2000

By Supara Janchitfah

ENVIRONMENT: Residents of Samut Prakan are asking the Asian Development Bank to distance itself from what they call "a non-transparent, environmentally destructive and poverty-increasing project" being pursued by the Pollution Control Department

“This project does not reduce poverty," says Mr Chalao Timthong, a resident of Klong Dan sub-district in Samut Prakan. "It increases it."Mr Chalao, a coastal fisherman, raises his hackles whenever the topic is the nearby construction of the Pollution Control Department's wastewater treatment plant.

Mr Chalao's anger is rooted in the fear among local residents that when the plant begins operation, it will pollute the Klong Dan coastal area. This will endanger not only a rich source of marine food, but also the livelihoods and an important food source of Klong Dan's 14 villages.

These villages house some 30,000 locals, whose main source of income is coastal fishing. About 70 percent of them depend on fishery-related occupations to support their families.

The 23 billion baht project is partly funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

"You think about it," says Mr Chalao. "There are over 100 small-scale fishing boats in our community. These boats are our main income when we go out to gather mussels.

"Each boat gathers an average of about 800 tung each day. We sell this for about 30 baht a tung. A great number of people also gather fish and other resources from the sea. Many of us depend on jobs related to the sea," he said.

For instance, villager Sakorn Suknak earns her daily rice by shelling fresh mussels each day, for which she gets at least 200 baht.

"With this work, I don't have to leave my village. I work and take care of my family at the same time," said Mrs Sakorn.

"That's what the ADB would like to promote, right?" said Mrs Sakorn.

Local villagers agree that the government's Pollution Control Department (PCD) needs to control Samut Prakan's factory waste emissions. However, many are asking why a wastewater treatment plant is being built in an agricultural zone.

WATER TREATMENT A MUST

"Why can't state agencies enforce a law for each factory to have its own wastewater treatment facility?" asks Mr Chalao.

Experts agree that such a step saves the government from huge investments and places the responsibility of environmental health on the factories instead of the taxpayers.

Dr Sujin Panapavuth, president of the Environmental Engineering Association of Thailand, quotes a recent survey by the association which found that 90 percent of the 3,600 factories in Samut Prakan have their own wastewater treatment systems.

The survey found that 38 percent of the factories treated wastewater to acceptable local standards. Besides being too expensive, the PCD project is now being criticised for irrelevance. The residents of Klong Dan are extremely concerned that the plant will release treated wastewater into the sea and this might change the salinity levels. This, the villagers fear, will affect marine flora and fauna and, consequently, their community lifestyles, their livelihood and seafood consumers.

"We realise that this plant will release treated wastewater into our gulf not only from the Bang Poo Industrial Estate but also from thousands of other factories along the east and west banks of the ChaoPhyaRiver.

"We know that this will be done through a system of pipes totalling 125 kilometres in length. The treated water will be released into the sea in our area."

FROM GOLF TO WASTEWATER

The project has created tension among the villages because there was no participation or consultation with them.

"We never knew about the project until a sign was put up in 1998," said Chalao.

Furthermore, the PCD's reasons for changing the project site from Bang Pla Kod and Bang Poo Mai to their area in Klong Dan does not convince the villagers; they suspect large-scale corruption is involved.

"These sites were proposed in the studies by Montgomery Watson Asia, but the change to the Klong Dan site was made by the project operators without any EIA (environmental impact assessment) study," said Chalao. PCD officials have tried and explained that the joint venture companies won the bid to the project but could not find suitable land in the suggested areas.

At a recent seminar, Science and Technology Minister Dr Arthit Ourairat said the project site has been changed because "they cannot find the land at the proposed sites."Mr Chalao, however, read a technical hearing dated August 9, 1999 which said that the decision to change the plant site was because releasing treated wastewater into the nearby SapasamitCanal will cause problems due to the canal's poor assimilative capacity. "If the water is released into the ChaoPhyaRiver, it will also cause another problem: dirt will accumulate at the lower level of the river due to the tide and ebb of sea water level."(The technical hearing was organised by the PCD. Chalao cites this to prove his contention that releasing treated wastewater in his area will cause problems.)Klong Dan locals, however, believe the real reason is that the land at Klong Dan belongs to a group of companies with close relationships to some influential politicians.

"These companies planned to build a golf course and a tourist resort but they found that regular sea flooding causes the area to sink. So they cancelled the plans and sold it to the PCD," said Chalao.

Many villagers are convinced that vested political interests are another factor. "Original plans put the wastewater treatment plant near the factory locations. Klong Dan is much farther, so they have to lay more pipes. The more pipes they can lay, the more money they can get. We know each pipe costs 170,000 baht. "The original sites would have cost the government 13,612 million baht for the project. "The new site at Klong Dan will cost the government 23,701 million baht. This unreasonable increase in cost will be shouldered by us, the taxpayers," said Chalao.

"How can we afford this?"

IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT ADB

Local residents believe that the project cannot be implemented without the financial support of the ADB and other international moneylenders.

Thus, ADB has also been a target of local ire.

"The ADB wants to promote good governance, but this project is not transparent," says Dawan Chantarahassadi, a food shop owner at Klong Dan. "But why not listen to us?"ADB also stresses public participation," Dawan said. "But how can ADB approve the project loan without allowing us locals to take part in the decision-making? We did not have any input to the project at all."Local residents wonder why such a large project did not conduct an EIA study or public hearing.

Science and Technology Minister Arthit Ourairat explains that the project was approved before the new constitution came into effect.

The project was approved on October 17, 1996, while the new constitution, which requires public hearings on large-scale projects that may affect residents, was ratified in October 1997.

However, despite Dr Arthit's explanation, the 1992 Environmental Act requires EIAs of all large-scale projects being constructed.

ADB environmental manager Warren Evan insists there is no corruption in this project. As to allegations that PCD bought the Klong Dan land site for an artificially high price, Dr Arthit says he has nothing to do with it at all.

Records show that the PCD bought the Klong Dan land site at 1,030,000 baht per rai. The Bangplee Land Department office's official rate is 480,000 per rai.

Locals say the local price of the land was even cheaper than the Land Department's official price.

Dr Arthit says the land was purchased and paid before he assumed office as Science and Technology Minister. "I have no power on earth to do anything," he said. "I cannot change the cabinet resolution, and I cannot get the money back."At a recent seminar by the Thai Development Support Committee and ChulalongkornUniversity's Social Development Research Centre, Dr Arthit expressed the difficulties in solving the problem.

"It would be easier for me to quit my position than to cancel the project."

FREEZE REJECTED

Villagers said they want the minister to freeze the project so that a public hearing and EIA studies can be conducted.

Dr Arthit maintains that he has no authority to do so.

PCD director-general Sirithan Pairoj-boriboon admitted the errors as "some shortcomings" but will not delay or cancel the project. "Our weakness is that we did not conduct public hearings and we did not consult the villagers. We only inquired from the Tambon Administration Organisation (TAO). "I have to apologise for this. "The villagers are raising logical concerns. If they did not raise these issues, we would not know about it," said Sirithan after a round of questions from Klong Dan residents.

However he insisted that to cancel the project is impossible as the project is now 50 percent completed.

ADB representative Warren Evan repeated the ADB's major policies of poverty reduction as well as environmental health.

Dawan responds: "Our area is a green area. It is a food source of the country. We have jobs, we have never been hungry. Our way of life was not affected by the country's economic crisis. Is this not what the ADB ostensibly wants to promote? Why change it?"Despite accusations that they are producing groundless and attention-seeking protests, locals have found that their concerns are supported by academics and independent studies. (More details about these studies will be published next week.)

ADB SINGS PRAISES

An ABD information website states that the project will improve the adjacent aquatic environment and reduce public health risks.

It also said that a broad cross-section of residents will benefit, particularly women and low-income families who live close to factories and low-lying, flood-prone areas, in that they need not be exposed to polluted waterways anymore.

The ADB says its overriding consideration in any project is poverty reduction. It claims that all its other strategic objectives-economic growth, human development, sound environmental management and improving the status of women-will be pursued in ways that directly reduce poverty.

However, the local residents of Klong Dan don't think so. "This ADB project will destroy our environment and self-sufficient livelihood." said Dawan. "It will increase our poverty."But ADB environmental manager Warren Evan insists that this project will reduce environmental problems and improve the way of life of Klong Dan residents.

EMPTY RHETORIC?

Almost all of Klong Dan's community leaders believe that the ADB's principle of good governance and poverty reduction is only rhetoric. They point out that the Bank does not know to how to translate these words into action.

Senior researcher Shamali Guttal of Focus on the Global South agrees: "The ADB has no clue how to reduce poverty. In adopting the poverty reduction rhetoric, it is merely following the lead of the World Bank and its other multilateral peers.....

"A relative laggard in the development business, the ADB is the last of the multilateral institutions to declare full and complete dedication to the reduction of poverty.

"Meanwhile, Minister Arthit reiterated last week that a public hearing would be held regarding this project. However, villagers say that the results of the public hearing will be disregarded because construction continues. They say this indicates that authorities will proceed, regardless of the results of a public hearing.

Next week: Why was the project moved from Bang Pla Kod and Bang Poo Mai to Klong Dan? Whose land was purchased at a very high price for this project? What problems will the project relocation cause? An official survey says 90% of the factories have installed their own water treatment plants-so why this expensive project?