Krabi wrestles with coal-fired power plant blues

Anchalee Kongkrut,
Bangkok Post
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Krabi province has been outdoing other provinces in its ability to pull in tourists.

Its popularity is such that a hotel in neighbouring Trang province advertises the province as the “southern part of Krabi”.

Last year, the province made 42 billion baht from tourists, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

The New York Times put Krabi among 52 places to go in the year 2014. The list describes Krabi as “a Phuket-like hideaway, but still unspoiled”.

The transformation of the former tin mining town and fishing community has been remarkable.

It started from humble beginnings more than 20 years ago, when a Bangkok investor bought a rice field in Ao Nang to build a resort later known as Rayavadee.

It is blessed with resources: pristine nature, breathtaking limestone caves and a swathe of world-class scuba diving sites.

Krabi positions itself as environmentally pleasant tourist destination, offering a wide range of accommodation from six-star island resorts to bungalows for travellers on a budget.

During my visit to the province two months ago, a fisherman gave me a tour of his home in Koh Yao Ya, near Koh Yao Noi where the famous six-star island resort is located. ‘’Now you can enjoy a millionaire’s view from my humble boat,’’ he said.

Krabi promotes itself as a green tourism-based economy, which in ordinary circumstances might show that environment and tourism can get along happily, as long as local resources are exploited in a sustainable manner.

But I worry that the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand’s plan to build a 800-megawatt coal-fired power plant there might put the province’s future at risk.

I wonder what inspired our energy planners to choose a coastal province that depends on income from tourism and nature as the site for a coal-fired power plant.

Technocrats from the energy industry might convince the developer to embrace clean-coal technology and other mechanisms to reduce pollution.

Yet cases like the Pak Moon dam, or the notorious Mae Moh coal-fired power plant invite many to question the ability of the agency to accomplish much.

Construction of the 60-billion-baht plant has yet to begin, though the third public hearing into the project took place early this year.

It has already led to splits between civic groups, scuba diving operations, hoteliers and tourist businesses.

Some believe the project will bring economic prosperity, while others fret about the environment.

On the plus side, some are certain the coal-fired power plant will help prevent a repeat of the massive electricity blackouts in the South last year.

On the negative side, the shipping route for coal needed to supply the plant will pass within 5km of Koh Lanta, a famous dive site.

Civic groups such as Pitak Pakasai Krabi and the Koh Lanta Tourism Association have complained to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), calling for an investigation into the hearings which they say failed to give sufficient information to villagers.

‘’Egat only gave the good side of the coal-fired power plants. Villagers heard what Egat wants them to hear,’’ Teerawat Kasirawat, head of the Koh Lanta Tourism Association said.

‘’We need a neutral forum where information can be revealed and questions can be asked,’’ Mr Teerawat said.

The NHRC visited Krabi late last month and will announce its findings later.

Developers often adopt a top-down approach to their decision-making, rather than inviting public input from the outset. Such projects usually meet heavy public resistance.

Residents of the Pak Bara community in Satun province have protested against a deep-sea port and heavy industrial complex proposed for that area.

Locals in Nakhon Si Thammarat province, meanwhile, have rejected a plan by an energy firm to build a pier for petroleum exploration.

In the recent past, villagers in Prachuap Khiri Khan protested against coal-fired power plants created partially to supply energy to the local steel industry.

In the Krabi case, I fear the public will turn its back on the hearings if the developer cannot differentiate between public relations and genuine information.

People need to consume electricity without having to sacrifice economic opportunity, never mind their health and the environment.

As the public embraces renewable energy and energy conservation, the days when Egat could hope to foist coal-fired plants on local communities, especially those so heavily reliant on the environment, may be coming to an end. We deserve better.

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