Urbanization and Life Environment Protection:

The Case of Thailand and Bangkok

From: International Symposium on APEC Cooperation for Sustainable Development ,
IDE and JEF, Tokyo, Japan, 1997

by Tongroj Onchan *


Thailand presents an interesting case study on the problem of environment and urbanization. The extreme primacy of the city of Bangkok has lead to rapid industrialization and expansion. It has also led to income disparity among the regions and occupations has worsened. This has resulted in natural resource depletion and degradation of the environment which poses a threat to the sustainability of national development. While the benefits of rapid urbanization in Bangkok are many, the costs are extremely high, particularly in relation to the degradation of the environment. This includes: air and water pollution, congestion, solid and hazardous waste, water supply, slums, and inappropriate land use. These problems are getting worse, despite efforts made in recent years by the government and the private sector to resolve them.

As the problems are very serious and the efforts made so far have not been effective, drastic measures are called for.. The underlying cause of urban environmental problems, particularly in Bangkok, is the failure to achieve adequate coordination between private development and investment in infrastructure, (particularly environmentally related infrastructure). As the free market system has shown that it works very well in Thailand, it should also be applied more actively in the environmental sector. Government interventions or regulations are also necessary and should of course, be used as appropriate. For example, Thailand should adopt comprehensive land use planning that combines free market incentives with land use control. Fiscal policies, like property and land taxation, can be effectively applied to increase land-use efficiency and to reduce land speculation which has resulted in the problems of land idling and high land prices. There is also potential for the use of urban and environmental impact fees for flood protection, road, water supply, sewerage and sewerage treatment, environmental auditors and monitoring equipment, and parks and recreation.

Although a number of policies, plans and initiatives are under way to improve urban environmental conditions, they are still not effective. It is clear that the principal impediments to reverse the deteriorating trends of the urban environment arise from inadequate organizational capacity. A strategy is needed to improve and enable institutional mechanisms to respond to the pervasive environment impact of the expanding economy and social change. In Thailand, the government's ability to cope with various environmental issues will be limited in the short-run. In fact, given the nature and the current situation of Thai politics, which seems to have excessive vested interests among different factions/groups, short-run objectives will receive more attention than longer term objectives of sustainable development and environmental improvement. This explains why large-scale projects such as the mass transit system and the second Bangkok airport have encountered unnecessary delays in implementation.

To increase the governments' capability to handle environmental problems, particularly in urban areas, local governments must play a greater role. At present, as the government administration is highly centralized, and local governments are generally underdeveloped. While the 8th National Plan emphasizes decentralization for a more participatory form of governance, concrete actions and reforms in such areas as local finance, decision making power and accountability, have thus for demonstrated little progress. The inability to raise funds, for example, contributes to the failure of local authorities to properly operate and maintain existing environmental facilities, such as waste water treatment plants. Decentralization and local government development will take time. In the short run when urban environment problems must be effectively addressed, more active participation by the private sector and by NGOs is needed. It is an encouraging sign to see that both the private sector and NGOs have been increasingly taking initiatives to protect the environment. The Thailand Business Council for Sustainable Development (TBCSD), for example, has been instrumental in promoting greater corporate responsibility in protecting the environment. Several environmental projects have been initiated (like dust-free streets, and urban tree planning). Environmentally related businesses have also been expanding and should be promoted. Local NGOs and community groups have undertaken projects to improve the quality of life in urban areas, especially in slums. Finally, local participation at all levels from planning to implementation must be actively encouraged if long-term protection of the environment is to be effective. In short, joint action or involvement among key players (government, private sector, NGOs and citizen organizations) is required and must be promoted.

Needless to say, the dimension and scope of the problems and the solutions to it go beyond the boundary of a city. This is why the issue of Bangkok's urban problem is very complex and must be adequately addressed. To resolve the problem, for example, rural and regional development is essential to spread economic and social activities and to discourage rural migration to Bangkok. However, we must accept the fact that Bangkok will continue to grow and this should take place in a way that will be beneficial to the Thai society as a whole. The growth of Bangkok should henceforth be carefully planned and controlled so as to make it sustainable. This will allow Bangkok to efficiently function as a national and international center for economic, social and political development.

*Vice President, Thailand Environment Institute, (TEI), Bangkok, Thailand