By Sirinya Wattanasukchai
Songkhla Province, Thailand, August 31, 2016
My trip to Songkhla in the south of Thailand earlier this week was not a typical sightseeing jaunt, but it was certainly worthwhile.
My destination was not Muang district which is famous for its old-town quarters or Hat Yai, the well-known shopping district of the southern region, but a pristine beach in Thepa’s tambon Pak Bang which is the designated site for a controversial coal-fired power plant.
And it was a coincidence to find out from a local news report that a group of executives of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), which is pushing for a 2,200MW power plant, visited the area at the same time.
On top of that, the executives described coal as a “green” energy source.
“The coal-fired power plant will be equipped with the best technology to ensure pollution will be under control, to make it a green power plant. The coal-fired power plant will also be made into a plant for tourism,” Egat governor Kornrasit Pakchotanon was quoted as saying in the report.
With such assurances, any local residents would be more than glad to give cooperation to the state. Who wouldn’t want their homes to be developed into a tourism destination that would bring development and higher income?
But do the governor and other executives really think the claimed state-of-the-art power plant — that will definitely release pollution at a certain levels, especially toxic ash and filthy air — will attract tourists? How about the locals, some 200 families, who will have to be relocated to pave the way for the plant?
The executives may not know (or choose to ignore) that the 3km-long Thepa beach, better known as Sakom beach after the name of the nearby village, has long been a spot to rest for local people. Songkhla has been a place where travellers stop for petrol and meals over the past several decades. Sakom beach has been a resting place for drivers and a picnic destination for families.
The question is: Do we really need to trade off the priceless nature and people’s livelihoods with this power plant when many Western countries have now given up coal and are looking toward renewable energy?
Putting aside the pollution, there have been past cases in which the state traded off nature and the homes of locals for power plants which were also promoted as tourist sites.
Cases in point are the Vajiralongkorn (formerly known as Khao Laem) and Srinakarin dams in Kanchanaburi province which have been promoted by the Egat as destinations. In particular, the temple of Luang Por Uttama which was totally submerged by the Vajiralongkorn dam has become a tourism site during the dry season when the old bell tower emerges for photo ops. In some years when it’s very dry, people can even walk on the old grounds of the temple.
Has the Egat management ever calculated how much we have lost — the people’s livelihoods, nature, sources of food and fish — in exchange for the dams touted as development success for the agency?
To me, it’s difficult to understand how the Egat and the state can make such claims. I think it’s sad to see this place where old communities must be relocated in the name of development, not to mention many wild creatures which might not survive.
Again, going back to the “green” power plant, does the governor think people want to drive all the way to Thepa to take a deep breath of the polluted air released from the power plant? Maybe the Egat should provide facial masks and oxygen tanks for tourists? Perhaps a few people who really trust in the advanced technology will take the trip — but not me.
And if there’s any campaign to promote the plant to be the next tourism destination for this southern province, I would like to see the Egat governor and the plant’s employees take their families to spend a whole summer there to show the public how life can be enjoyed.
I can hardly wait for a 24/7 live broadcast of the summer vacation by the Egat families, preferably without a mask.
This piece was written in collaboration with the Mekong Matters Journalism Network and The Mekong Eye. Full editorial control is with the journalist and opinions may not reflect those of The Mekong Eye or its partners.
Photo: Thepa teacher Direk Hemnakorn shows journalists how Thepa river is vital to community livelihoods (The Mekong Eye)