So, what's to be done with Klong Dan?

Bangkok Post 9 July 2008


By Ploenpote Atthakor

It's been nearly two decades since the graft-ridden, 23-billion-baht Klong Dan wastewater treatment project was abandoned and a group of politicians, their associates and state officials ordered to undergo trial in court. There remains the question: what to do with the doomed project, which is now literally a monument of graft?

As the Supreme Court is to hand down a verdict today on Vatana Asavahame, deciding the fate of the veteran politician who is now president of Puea Pandin party, for his role in the purchase of land for the plant, the fate of the Klong Dan project is still unclear.

The mammoth wastewater treatment project, situated on 1,900 rai of land in Samut Prakan province, was over 90% complete when fierce protests by local environmentalists who complained against possible impact on the coastal ecology and irregularities during the land procurement and construction process, brought everything to a halt and generated one of the country's biggest corruption scandals. For this reason many people, including Natural Resources and Environment Minister Anongwan Thepsutin, want to revive the project and put it to good use after it is eventually completed. The ministry in 2004 commissioned a consultancy firm, Black & Veatch Co, to study the possibility of the project's revival. Although the results of the study were never made public, the consultant firm appears to have come up with a very positive answer.

In her drive to revive the project, Mrs Anongwan is said to be preparing to hire a new firm to follow up on the Black & Veatch study. A senior official at the Pollution Control Department, the responsible agency, expressed confidence that a conclusion should be reached by the end of this year.

Obviously, the major reason for Mrs Anongwan's revival move is that the 23-billion-baht sum of money already invested should not just be thrown away. The minister may innocently believe that the project should no longer be suspended once those in the wrong (just some of them, actually) are punished.

Sounds very reasonable, doesn't it?

But that may not necessarily be the case regarding the Klong Dan project, for its revival would not just lead to new problems, it would also revive the old, unresolved ones.

Mrs Anongwan did not say how much money the ministry would need to fix - and probably replace - equipment in the plant that has been left in a sorry state, to make the project workable. Surely it will be a big sum and it is not yet clear if the investment will be worth it.

The revival option appears not to properly address the environmental impact of the project - another key reason which ran it into the ground in the first place.

And what about the operational costs? In particular, the cost of fuel for water pumps, which is said to be quite high?

While making the Klong Dan plant recommissioning proposal, the minister and bureaucrats simply dismissed a call from the locals that the site be re-designed as a centre for the study of marine creatures. Like in many cases, they simply failed to learn from past mistakes in order to avoid repetition. They know well that the Klong Dan scandal will fade from public memory before long.

But should we let that happen? I think not.

If we have no better idea what to do with the doomed project, what about turning it into a public learning place - a museum or monument? Turn the site into a place that raises public knowledge about graft and corruption. We have to admit that while we are never lacking in cases that prove our society is riddled with corruption, and at times someone may be caught while many others remain free, people in society hardly ever learn their lesson. That is why the problems keep recurring.

Too expensive? Perhaps. But that kind of learning place is necessary, especially if we take into account a series of poll surveys which indicate an increase in tolerance among people, mostly youngsters, towards corruption committed by politicians.

To prevent such a horrible trend, we will have to equip them with tangible knowledge. To this end, a museum on graft can be a possible choice.

Ploenpote Atthakor is Deputy News Editor, Bangkok Post.