Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ignorance is no longer bliss


Ignorance is no longer bliss

In her 75th birthday address last year, Her Majesty the Queen implored that action be taken to preserve what remains of the nation's environment and cited examples of obvious neglect. It came as little surprise when she returned to the theme on her 76th birthday this week, because there has been a distinct lack of any substantive progress or sustained initiative. The richness of our natural beauty and resources continues to be squandered.

Short-term knee-jerk responses, fine-sounding but unfulfilled promises and vague, ill-defined projects are no substitute. Even these have been in short supply as recent governments wallowed in apathy. They went to great lengths to get enough power to be able to make a difference and then failed to do so.

But there is still reason for hope and this year it came in the encouraging response from the general public. Many Thais from all walks of life were sufficiently inspired to use the public holiday set aside for celebrating Her Majesty's birthday to benefit the environment. They planted trees in Nakhon Ratchasima, cleared water hyacinth from Chiang Rai Lake and opted for plants over jasmine garlands to commemorate the accompanying Mother's Day.

One part of Her Majesty's speech demanding careful reflection is her warning of the danger of a scarcity of freshwater resources a couple of decades from now. It is easy to underestimate such a threat in a rainy week in which the Mekong River rose to its highest level since 1966, but the risk of disruption to vital water supplies is nonetheless a valid one.

We have long known of the threat posed to the capital by excessive reliance on artesian well water. Now comes a warning from the chairman of the National Disaster Warning Centre, Smith Dharmasarojana, that Bangkok faces a two-pronged attack.

First, the city is subsiding at the rate of 10cm per year, partly caused by the pumping of underground water and the frantic pace of construction. The metropolis is only between one and 1.5 metres above sea level now, and Mr Smith predicts that if nothing is done, it will have sunk deep enough into its soft, loamy soil to put much of it 50 centimetres to one metre under water by the year 2025.

Second, global warming is causing seas to rise and there are signs of severe coastal erosion just downstream from Bangkok. This has led climate and ocean experts to warn that several coastal provinces on the Gulf of Thailand could be devastated by a storm surge. This is a frightening phenomenon associated with low weather pressure, which sees sea water levels rise offshore and can cause flash floods when the tide reaches land. Such a storm could generate waves of 2.2 to 4.5 metres high, which could flatten coastal communities and potentially cause greater damage than the havoc wrought by Cyclone Nargis on Burma in May.

Although this sounds terrifying, it does remain speculation. Yet Mr Smith, who famously warned of a tsunami years before the 2004 disaster, is worried enough to urge that a long sea wall be built in coastal areas to protect Bangkok and its neighbouring provinces and coastline against such tidal surges.

Rampant deforestation is another factor creating a scarcity of water. One day there will just not be enough water to go round. Even now, conservationists say that fresh water only accounts for 3% of all the water available on our planet. And yet we selfishly continue to pollute our rivers and ignore the consequences.

Her Majesty's fears and concerns must be those of all of us.

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