Chapter 4. Planet: Conserving nature

The Planet pillar of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development covers six environmental areas including water, clean energy, responsible production and consumption, climate action, life below water and life on land. Rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and the expansion of intensive agriculture in Thailand placed a heavy strain on the environment. In the past two decades, the country has made improvements with respect to environmental performance and has set ambitious targets in areas such as greenhouse gas emissions. Remaining challenges include: managing water resources to mitigate floods and droughts, designing strategies for resilient and sustainable development of urban areas, increasing forest area and enhancing land-ownership opportunities, conserving and sustainably using biodiversity, improving air and water quality (especially in major urban centres and industrial zones), dealing with growing volumes of solid waste, and addressing climate change.


As in other emerging market economies, Thailand’s economic development has come with intense use of natural resources and a heavy environmental toll. Large swaths of the country’s forests were converted to agricultural land after the 1950s, as Thailand established itself on the global stage as a major agricultural producer and exporter. Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation were accompanied by increasing pollution levels and rising carbon emissions. Recently, however, Thailand has made improvements with respect to environmental performance and has set ambitious targets in areas such as greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, a number of challenges remain if it is to meet the Sustainable Development Goals set by the 2030 Agenda on water, clean energy, responsible production and consumption, climate action, life below water and life on land.

This chapter discusses a number of major environmental challenges facing Thailand including: managing natural resources, especially water and biodiversity; enhancing the environmental quality of life, notably with respect to pollution and waste; and tackling climate change through mitigation and adaptation measures. It also reviews the legislative framework, institutional arrangements and policy instrument mix for the environment, as well as the system for environmental impact assessment.

Thailand can improve its management of natural resources

Thailand’s sustainable development rests on astute management of natural resources that underpin vital economic sectors and millions of livelihoods. In particular, Thailand needs to focus on the management of water resources and biodiversity.

Water management in the face of droughts and floods

Thailand is exposed to cycles of drought and flooding that cause loss of life and economic disruption. In particular, drought and flooding have negatively affected agricultural production, especially in the rural provinces in the North, the Northeast and the South regions, where the share of agriculture in GDP exceeded 20% in 2015, compared to the national average of 9% (Figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1. Droughts and floods affect many areas

Source: NESDB (2017), Social and Quality of Life Database System,; OAE (2017), Agricultural Statistics of Thailand 2016.

Droughts affect more people than flooding in Thailand, although the resulting economic damage tends to be less. In 2016, at the end of the dry season, Thailand faced its worst water shortages in two decades: drought was declared in 14 provinces and water rationing was imposed as major dams dropped to their lowest levels since 1994 (Thepgumpanat and Tanakasempipat, 2016). In addition to the direct impacts and economic disruption caused by limited access to water for people, farms and businesses, droughts also damage infrastructure. For example, roads in eastern Bangkok were damaged when the water in the adjacent canals dropped during the 2015 droughts.

Droughts are driven in part by natural climatic patterns. The absolute quantity of rainfall that Thailand receives should be enough to meet demand. Water availability per capita is high, although on a declining trend. However, despite reassuring annual averages, seasonal variation in precipitation due to the monsoon-dry season pattern creates challenges for water management. Moreover, the geographical distribution of water resources is uneven, with the major demand centres of Bangkok and the Central Plain relying on supplies from other regions in the absence of their own large water reservoirs. Risk of drought is higher in the North and the Northeast regions, where annual rainfall is below the national average (Figure 4.2). Finally, the El Niño climate phenomenon, which occurs at irregular intervals every two to seven years, brings drier rainfall conditions during the typical monsoon months, inducing drought conditions.

Figure 4.2. Erratic rainfalls in recent years have amplified natural disasters

Source: OAE (2017), Agricultural Statistics of Thailand 2016.

Thailand has experienced drought conditions even in years when rainfall has exceeded the long-term average, pointing to drivers beyond climatic variables. This reflects patterns in water consumption behaviour, agricultural and industrial land development, urbanisation and population growth (Thaiturapaisan, 2016). Over 90% of water withdrawal is used for agricultural purposes, 5% for domestic usage and 5% for industry (FAO, 2016).

Excessive groundwater abstraction is another consequence of poorly managed water resources. Groundwater supplies 6% of water demand in the country. However, for many years groundwater has been extracted at rates surpassing its natural recharge capacity. This has led to a decline in groundwater levels, land subsidence and seawater intrusion, especially in the Greater Bangkok Region (Fornes and Pirarai, 2014). The government recognises that water shortage problems are likely to increase as projected future water demand outstrips current water storage capacity (VNR Taskforce, 2017).

Flooding has caused major economic damage in Thailand, sometimes resulting in broader international impacts. The cost of floods averaged over THB 6 billion (nearly USD 190 million) per year between 1989 and 2013. The 2011 floods were among the most devastating, claiming over 1 000 lives, affecting 16 million people and accounting for over THB 23 billion (USD 690 million) in damage (MOI, 2013). They also affected global supplies of electronics and automobiles as production was forced to shut down, highlighting Thailand’s role as a key manufacturing hub in Southeast Asia and a vital cog in global supply chains (GVCs) (Chapter 2).

Heavy monsoon rains are the immediate cause of flooding, but several other factors contribute. Poorly planned urban expansion, intensification of agriculture, and the deterioration or loss of watershed forests have led to the decline of flood retention areas and flood plains (MFA Netherlands, 2016). Subsidence linked to the excessive and uncontrolled pumping of groundwater – a particular problem in Bangkok – also increases flood risks.

Climate change is expected to exacerbate the challenge even further. National projections indicate that heavier rainfalls are expected in areas with already high precipitation, such as the southern peninsula, leading to increased potential for flooding. Precipitation is expected to decline even further in the arid, inland Northeast region, making drought more likely (ONEP, 2015).

A lack of integrated water management hinders an effective response to these challenges. Water management in Thailand is characterised by a highly fragmented institutional framework consisting of least 31 ministerial departments under 10 ministries, one national unit under the Prime Minister’s Office, one agency and six national committees (Box 4.1). Overlapping responsibilities can lead to conflicts of interest and impede the development of integrated water management.

Box 4.1. Government bodies and departments involved in water management in Thailand

A significant number of ministerial departments and national and sub-national bodies are involved in water management in Thailand:

  • The National Water Resource Committee (NWRC), established in 1988, is the most important formal body with responsibility for supervising and monitoring projects and advising the Cabinet on policies and regulations.

  • The National Water Management Unit was established in August 2017 under the Prime Minister’s Office. It has a mandate to oversee the government’s efforts to tackle flooding and droughts across relevant ministries and government agencies.

  • The National Water Resources and Flood Policy Committee (NWFPC) and the Water Flood Management Commission (WFMC) formulate policy, approve investment projects, and monitor the implementation and impact of these projects.

  • Twenty-five River Basin Committees (RBCs) composed of government officials, user groups and experts are responsible for preparing river basin water resource management frameworks and plans.

  • The Department of Water Resources under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment manages surface water in non-irrigated areas and monitors flood mitigation.

  • The Royal Irrigation Department (RID) under the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives is responsible for overseeing the supply of water for the agricultural sector, improving reservoirs and managing surface water in irrigated areas. It also plays a role in constructing and maintaining waterways and flood protection systems.

  • The Department of Groundwater Resources (DGR) under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment regulates groundwater use.

  • The Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation under the Ministry of Interior ensures the integration of disaster risk mitigation strategies into sectoral plans for risk sensitive investment, including those in the water management sector. The Department moreover promotes co-ordination in emergency responses as well as in recovery efforts.

A number of other ministerial departments are involved in different aspects of water management, including the construction of small-scale irrigation-related projects and/or flood prevention, oversight and management.

Source: Fornés and Pirarai (2014) and MFA Netherlands (2016).

Unlike many countries, Thailand has no single law governing water management. Currently, there are 36 primary laws and 2 000 secondary legal frameworks relating to water resource management. For this reason, the Department of Water Resources has been working since 1992 to draft the Water Act. This Act aims to rationalise the legal framework, strengthen existing legal instruments and ensure the effectiveness of policies. By providing policy guidance and setting homogeneous national priorities, it is intended to allow different entities and stakeholders develop and implement their respective water management plans in accordance with the overarching national framework. Budget allocation will also be compliant with agreed national priorities. Good practice of unified management will be drawn from the Ministry of Energy’s experience.

In the absence of a comprehensive law, Thailand has launched a number of water management plans and strategies. For example, the Water Resources Management Strategy 2015-2026 covers water source management, water usage and wastewater management; and the Strategy for Green Growth under the 20-Year National Strategy Framework 2017-2036 and the Strategy for Green Growth toward Sustainable Development under the 12th National Economic and Social Development Plan (NESDP) 2017-2021 (12th Plan) foresee numerous activities related to water management (VNR Taskforce, 2017). However, implementation is hampered by institutional complexity and political issues. Furthermore, Thailand’s water management plans cover a relatively short time span. Longer-term projections and planning are needed which incorporate factors that influence the probability of future floods such as rising sea levels and land subsidence.

The government has tended to focus on hard infrastructure, supply-side solutions to water management (PRD, 2015), while demand-side measures have received less attention. Experience from countries such as the Netherlands could provide useful examples of the benefits of a more holistic approach to water management and flood defence (Box 4.2).

Box 4.2. Water governance in the Netherlands: The Delta Programme

Without a flood defence system, approximately 60% of land in the Netherlands would be at risk of flooding. It is estimated that 9 million people live in flood risk areas, which account for an estimated 70% of GDP. To protect against flooding and in turn secure freshwater supplies, the Delta Programme adopts demand-side management measures combined with «soft» infrastructure. It is widely recognised as the global reference for water management and flood protection (OECD, 2014a). The first Delta Programme was presented to the House of Representatives in 2010, introducing a new flexible approach to water management. Its effectiveness is based on a combination of three features: multi-level public responsibility, the use of cutting-edge delta technologies and public awareness campaigns.

Demand-side water management measures are a prominent feature of the Delta Programme and include the adoption of cutting-edge delta technologies and knowledge development across four areas:

  1. Eco-engineering: This approach targets flood prevention and aims to achieve natural and environmental goals. For example, the Netherlands conducts marsh restoration projects to transform open freshwater into land, thereby generating stronger flood protection and encouraging biodiversity.

  2. Water safety: These programmes encompass «multi-layer safety» measures and use integrated, sensible and risk-based protection systems to tackle high water levels. The new Flood Control 2100 innovation programme plays an important role in meeting this challenge.

  3. Smart dikes: The Digital Delta and Energy Dikes innovation programmes deal with smart dikes. The former involves integrating and linking data, models, algorithms, tools and applications. The combined information is made available to the entire sector and offers innovations to stakeholders at a limited cost. The Energy Dikes programme focuses on ways of generating energy, including freshwater-saltwater transition and tidal power, thereby helping to make energy provision becomes more sustainable.

  4. Liveable deltas: Work is being performed on a cohesive portfolio of knowledge, technology and services to ensure living in deltas is sustainable. The three main approaches are mapping and monitoring delta cities, designing and planning resilient delta cities, and climate-adaptive construction and (re)development. Water awareness campaigns play an important role in implementing the Delta Programme. The government is working with partners under the Administrative Agreement of Water (including provinces, water boards, municipalities, drinking water companies and the Rijkswaterstaat), to launch the “Our Water” public awareness campaign (, which aims to help the population anticipate and respond to extreme drought and flood situations.

The 2018 Delta Programme will be the first to include spatial adaptation strategies. The Delta Plan on Spatial Adaptation features multi-level public responsibility structures at local and regional levels. By 2019, all municipalities will conduct water assessments and stress tests in collaboration with the provinces, district water boards and national government. Water assessments allow municipalities to factor in water-related risks and costs in spatial planning decisions, while stress tests will provide insights into vulnerabilities to water extremes, enabling authorities to take appropriate measures to tackle them.

Source: Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment (2016), Netherlands National Water Plan 2016-2021; and OECD (2014b), OECD Studies of Water: Water Governance in the Netherlands, Fit for the Future?

The recent establishment of the National Water Management Unit reflects the government’s growing attention to this issue. Following the floods in the Northeast region in August 2017, the Prime Minister established the unit under his office with a mandate to oversee government efforts to tackle flooding and droughts across relevant ministries and government agencies. The operational success of the unit, its relationship with existing bodies and its effectiveness in addressing the challenges outlined above remain to be seen.

The response to disasters such as flooding also falls under Thailand’s disaster risk governance frameworks. Taking the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 as a set of guiding principles, the government adopted the National Disaster Risk Management Plan in 2015, supplementing the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Act 2007. One of the goals of the plan is to improve co-ordination between the different parts and levels of government responsible for disaster management – an identified weakness of previous approaches. The plan also makes reference to non-structural mitigation measures such as land-use planning, zoning, building codes and other incentive measures, which were also lacking in previous approaches, but play a vital role in moving from a “reactive” disaster response and recovery mode to a proactive approach that encompasses disaster risk reduction. Combining disaster risk management with plans for climate change adaptation (see below) would further contribute to increasing Thailand’s resilience to disasters.

Sufficient funding and increased capacity at the local level will be needed if plans are to be effective. Currently, a lack of oversight means that funds transferred to the local level can be diverted for other purposes. Effective response to disasters is also hampered by the incomplete decentralisation of disaster governance (Marks and Lebel, 2016). Local authority organisations (with the exception of the Bangkok Metropolitan Area) lack the capacity to respond effectively to disasters and receive insufficient assistance from the central government (Chapter 5).

Thailand’s rich biodiversity needs to be conserved and managed sustainably

Thailand is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, thanks to its location between two major biogeographical regions: the Indochinese region in the north and the Sundiac region in the south. Its varied climate and topography of mountain ranges, major river basins and coastline supports a wide range of ecosystems, including 15 categories of forest varying from rainforest, evergreen and deciduous to mangroves found along the coastline. Thailand is also home to 15 000 plant species, representing 8% of the world’s total (CBD, 2017). Coastal and marine areas cover 316 000 km2 stretch along the Pacific Coast and the Indian Ocean and host coral reefs containing over 400 coral species – 10% of the world’s total (ONEP, 2014).

Thailand derives many benefits from its rich biodiversity. Its forests provide important ecosystem services such as watershed functions that help mitigate floods and carbon sequestration for climate change mitigation. Its ecosystems underpin important sectors of the economy and millions of jobs, including in agriculture, the seafood industry and tourism.

Thailand has six types of protected areas: national parks, forest parks, wildlife sanctuaries, non-hunting areas, botanical gardens and arboretums. Nearly 19% of the country’s total land is classified as territorial protected area (World Bank, 2017b) and at least 20% of the marine and coastal areas in Thai waters have been designated as protected areas (CBD, 2017). In addition, 16% of total marine areas are subject to ecosystem management measures.

However, biodiversity remains under threat. Compared to other middle-income countries, Thailand performs poorly on several indicators of biodiversity (Figure 4.3). Numerous species are at risk of extinction, including 118 mammals (35% of known mammal species in Thailand), 168 birds (17%), 49 reptiles (12%), 18 amphibians (11%), 202 fish (7%) and 1 131 plants. Ecosystem loss due to land use change is also a concern. For example, the country’s wetlands are decreasing due to irrigation and farmland encroachment, especially in the North and Northeast regions (ONEP, 2014). Other threats include invasion of alien species (especially in wetlands), trafficking of wild animals and plants, and climate change and pollution, which affects freshwater, marine and coral reef ecosystems. Parts of the country’s forests are also being degraded or destroyed.

Figure 4.3. Thailand performs poorly on several indicators of biodiversity

Note: The blue line represents Thailand’s performance when benchmarked against other middle-income countries. The grey line represents the performance that might be expected given the country’s level of income per capita. Places where the blue line lies inside the grey line represent poorer than expected performance on a given indicator.

Source: Author calculations based on World Bank (2017a), World Development Indicators (database); and World Bank (2017b), Deforestation and Biodiversity.

At the national level, forest cover has been improving in recent years thanks to reforestation and forest rehabilitation programmes combined with increased conservation efforts, including the creation of protected areas and public awareness raising (ONEP, 2014). These programmes have reversed a decades-long deforestation trend. In the 1960s, over half the country was forested, however much of this forest cover was lost due to the massive expansion of agricultural land associated with the promotion of cash crops. Thailand’s forest cover has since recovered from a low of 25% in 1998 to nearly 32% in 2016.

However, deforestation continues to be a problem in the Northeastern and Northern regions. Today, under 15% of land in the Northeast region is forested, with over 1.5 million rai (240 000 hectares) lost since 2008. The Northern region has experienced an even faster rate of deforestation since 2008, although the region still has much higher levels of forest cover at nearly 53% (RFD, 2017).

Several factors drive deforestation. Thailand’s national report to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 2014) states that forest area has been lost through the expansion of agricultural land, especially due to the promotion of cash crops such as rubber and oil palm planting. Price subsidies incentivised farmers to expand production, which was sometimes achieved by encroaching into forest land. These subsidies have since been removed. Illegal rosewood logging in the Northeast region, even in protected national parks (CBD, 2014), and the development of resorts for tourism, have also led to deforestation.

Land has also become degraded through intensive agriculture. Levels of vital nutrients such as nitrogen are five times below the accepted global standard, and 54% of land is considered low grade. Intensive agriculture and mono-cropping since the 1970s has led to nitrogen and nutrient leaching; misuse of chemical fertilisers has led to acid soils.

Biodiversity in marine and coastal areas has also deteriorated markedly with Thailand falling short of international targets for marine conservation. The fishing industry has caused coastal and marine ecosystem destruction and overfishing has resulted in a dramatic reduction in fish stocks. Fishing yields in Thai seas have declined from 300 kg/hour in 1961 to 25 kg/hour in 2011 (ONEP, 2014). As a result, the domestic fish processing industry must now rely on fish from other sources. Even in protected areas such as national marine parks, biomass has declined due to illegal fishing and tourism (Hockings et al., 2012). Other pressures on marine biodiversity include ocean acidification and the deteriorating quality of coastal waters from tourism and industrial activity along the coastline such as oil production. Thailand thus failed to meet the Millennium Development Goal target to reduce biodiversity loss and has not yet met several of the targets set by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (ONEP, 2014; VNR Taskforce, 2017).

Nevertheless, Thailand has made some notable gains in reversing or slowing biodiversity loss. For example, it has met targets set out in its National Policies, Strategies and Action Plan on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity (NBSAP) 2008-2012 to increase forest cover to 33% of total land area (reached in 2008, although cover has since dropped to below 32%), at least 18% of which comprises conserved forests, and to increase mangrove areas (ONEP, 2014).

The issue of biodiversity has been integrated into NESDPs with details laid out in the Master Plan for Integrated Biodiversity Management 2015-2021 and associated action plans. The 12th Plan lays out Thailand’s ambition to increase forest cover to 40% of total land area by 2030, a target that should contribute to biodiversity, as well as to water management and climate change mitigation. In addition, the National Biodiversity Action Plan 2015-2021 aims to reduce the rate of habitat loss by 50%. Within this framework, in 2015, the government enacted the Marine and Coastal Resources Management Act. Thailand’s Sustainable Consumption and Production Roadmap 2017-2036 also aims to restore biodiversity in agricultural areas to 2016 levels by 2025, and includes targets such as reducing the use of pesticides by 30% by 2026, and increasing sustainable and organic farming practices.

Challenges remain in securing environmental quality of life

The quality of the local living environment has a direct impact on people’s health and well-being, as well as repercussions for ecosystems. Thailand has been grappling with the environmental impacts of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, and while there have been improvements, challenges remain in three major areas: air pollution, water pollution and waste generation.

Air pollution has tended to worsen

While some measures of air pollution have shown improvement over the past 20 years, emissions of other pollutants continue to increase. PM2.5 pollution (atmospheric particulate matter pollution under 2.5 μm in diameter) has been creeping up in Thailand since 2010, after modest improvement between 1990 and 2010 (Figure 4.4). Other measures of pollution exhibit mixed performance over time and between regions (PCD, 2017a). On the positive side, levels of PM10 (particles 10 μm in diameter or under) have generally declined in Bangkok and across all regions since the late 1990s (a notable exception being Rayong in the East). Similarly, SO2 emissions in Bangkok and some regions have also declined. However, NO2 emissions and ozone pollution have worsened over the same period. NO2 emissions have been roughly stable in Bangkok, but have increased significantly in some regions, for example, Chiang Mai in the North and Rayong in the East. Ozone levels have been increasing in Bangkok and nearly every region, even doubling in some areas of the East and South.

Figure 4.4. Air pollution in Thailand has been increasing

Source: World Bank (2017a), World Development Indicators (database).

Four major sources of air pollution in Thailand include:

  • Industrial activity: Pollution limits are regularly exceeded in Thailand’s major industrial zones (PCD, 2015). For example, dust pollution from cement factories and industrial plants is a concern in Na Phra Lan in Saraburi, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) exceed safety standards in Map Ta Phut, the country’s largest industrial estate.

  • Vehicle traffic in urban areas: Rising populations combined with increasing car ownership is leading to deteriorating air quality in urban areas. The number of vehicles in Bangkok more than doubled between 2000 and 2016, from 4.5 million to 9.4 million. Their number increased by almost 17 million in the country as a whole (DLT, 2017).

  • Smoke and haze from burning in the North: A combination of agricultural burning and forest fires during the dry season creates smoke and haze across Northern Thailand from February to April. Land and vegetation may be slashed and burnt to clear and fertilize plots for agricultural use. Other contributors to the haze include forest clearance for crop land expansion, burning of agricultural waste and accidental forest fires.

  • Transboundary air pollution: Poor air quality in Thailand can sometimes be attributed to pollution from sources beyond its borders, including forest fires and agricultural burning in neighbouring Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Myanmar.

The authorities have taken steps to alleviate some of these pressures. Stricter emissions standards, fuel reformulation and inspection processes have been progressively introduced to tackle urban air pollution. Other measures have included public campaigns for carpooling and car-free days. The expansion of public transport systems has also helped tackle urban air pollution, although efforts have been concentrated in Bangkok. Cities such as Chiang Mai have no public transport systems and have seen traffic congestion and air pollution rise over the years. Moreover, even in Bangkok, public transport remains underdeveloped, although the Bangkok Mass Transit Master Plan foresees a massive expansion of the rail network.

In 2013, the government introduced the Northern Haze Prevention and Mitigation Plan, putting in place monitoring systems and co-ordination mechanisms to ensure that farmers do not carry out burning at the same time. Results from monitoring stations reportedly show that the situation is improving. Thailand is also party to the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, a legally binding environmental agreement signed in 2002, and in 2015 it adopted a regional roadmap to achieve a transboundary haze-free ASEAN by 2020. In response to industrial pollution, Thailand’s Sustainable Consumption and Production Roadmap 2017-2036 is aiming to achieve a 30% reduction in pollution from industrial sources by 2030.

However, sometimes policy measures are contradictory and work against improving air quality. For example, in 2012 a new fuel quality law was introduced to cut SO2 and vehicle emissions, yet in the same year the government announced a first-car buyer scheme whereby people would receive a tax refund upon the purchase of a car. As a result, 2.3 million additional vehicles were registered in 2012 compared to 2011, a much higher increase than typical year-on-year growth, which ranged between 700 000 and 1.3 million before 2011 (DLT, 2017).

Water quality needs to improve

According to estimates, 23% of surface water was of poor quality in 2016 (PCD, 2017b), although this represents a slight improvement on 2007. Groundwater pollution includes nitrates from agricultural sources in shallow aquifers, organic compounds from the petrochemical industry in coastal aquifers southeast of Bangkok, cadmium and fluoride in the Northwest, sodium chloride in the East and Northeast, arsenic in the South, and problems of seawater intrusion along the coastline (Fornés and Pirarai, 2014).

The agricultural sector is the largest polluter, discharging up to 39 million m3 of wastewater per day last year, followed by the industrial sector (17.8 million m3 per day) and the municipal sector (9.6 million m3 per day) (PCD, 2017b).

Inadequate capacity for wastewater treatment and a lack of compliance with regulations results in poor water quality. Only 15% of municipal wastewater from over 24 million households is treated (PCD, 2017b) and many communities located along watercourses release wastewater directly into rivers (ONEP, 2014). Furthermore, not all of the wastewater treatment plants that exist are operational. In 2016, 13 out of the 101 plants were not functional, a situation which the Pollution Control Department attributed to limited budget allocation for investment and maintenance of plants by local administration organisations (PCD, 2017b).

Monitoring and enforcement systems are falling short. The Industrial Works Department monitors the wastewater quality of 291 big factories in real time and regularly carries out surprise inspections on others. Nevertheless, river basins located in the main industrial bases of the country, including the Chao Phraya, Tha Chin and Rayong River basins, have severe water pollution problems. Over half of pollution point sources near the San Saab canal (Bangkok) and 16% of the sources near the Tha Chin River Basin did not treat their wastewater according to regulations (PCD, 2017b). Furthermore, only a few water pollution indicators are monitored, leaving dangerous substances such as heavy metals potentially undetected.

Finally, there are no financial disincentives to pollute, as users do not pay for the cost of treating wastewater. Introducing wastewater tariffs could address this issue. Such tariffs should factor in distributional effects on the poor, and be based on per unit costs of water usage amounts to discourage over-consumption through marginal pricing structures (OECD, 2015).

Managing solid waste is a growing challenge

As in many countries in Asia, solid waste generation is growing rapidly in Thailand. In 2016, 27 million tonnes or 74 000 tonnes per day of municipal solid waste were generated nationwide, representing an 80% increase since 2010 (PCD, 2017b, 2010). This amounts to 416 kg per person per year, which is relatively high among comparator countries (Figure 4.5). In addition, an estimated 3.5 million tonnes of hazardous waste were generated in 2016.

Figure 4.5. Thailand’s municipal waste per capita is higher than in many comparator countries
Municipal waste, latest available year

Source: Data for OECD countries are from OECD (2017). Data for Thailand are from PCD (2017b), Thailand State of Pollution 2016. Data for the Philippines and Singapore are from

Much of Thailand’s solid waste is not collected and treated correctly, in particular outside of major urban areas. Only 58% of the country’s municipalities provide refuse collection and disposal services (PCD, 2017b). As a result, just 50% of the total waste generated in the country is collected. Moreover, 43% of total waste is disposed of through open burning or illegal dumping, while just 36% is disposed of correctly, most of which is sent to sanitary landfills. Out of Thailand’s 2 500 open rubbish pits, only around one-fifth are properly managed. The rest entail risks of illegal dumping including of hazardous waste. In 2016, 1.9 million tonnes of hazardous industrial waste went unaccounted for after leaving factory gates (PCD, 2017b).

Numerous environmental problems result from the increasing quantity of waste and its inappropriate disposal. Seepage into nearby land and water systems and air pollution from waste fires can threaten public health. Methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, is also released from waste, which contributes to climate change. Rising waste is also a reflection of poor resource productivity, which works against the transition to more sustainable consumption and production patterns.

The composition of collected waste shows a high potential for composting, recycling and waste-to-energy. Currently, only 21% of waste is recovered in this way, against a potential 60% or more. Half of all waste collected in Bangkok (national data are not available) is organic material that could be composted (Table 3.1). This would reduce the demand for incineration and enable authorities to incinerate only non-recyclable waste. The rate of recycling could also be increased. Finally, introducing waste-to-energy is a good option as such plants can divert waste from landfill and recover heat and electricity from waste incineration. Thailand has recently started installing waste-to-energy plants, and there is potential for expansion (OECD, 2015). To realise this potential, there is a need to provide facilities for better sorting at source combined with public awareness building and education programmes.

Table 4.1. Composition of waste at transfer stations in the city of Bangkok, 2013




Food waste


Wood and leaves




Recycled paper


Recycled plastic










Non-recycled paper


Non-recycled plastic


Leather and rubber


Textiles and textile waste


Rock and ceramic


Bone and shells




Source: OECD (2015), Green Growth in Bangkok, Thailand.

Governance arrangements and associated financing issues are hampering progress in addressing waste management challenges. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment regulates solid waste management, while implementation is the responsibility of local authorities. The Ministry of Public Health sets the collection fee ceiling and the local government then sets the actual fee at or below this ceiling, with the fee going to the municipality. In general, municipalities pay private companies to provide waste collection and disposal services (and sometimes the facilities as well), which are established under public-private partnerships (PPPs) and fall under the oversight of the Ministry of Finance. One barrier to greater private sector participation could be the long timeframe needed to establish PPPs (Chapter 3).

Collection fees vary by municipality but are currently about THB 20/household/month (USD 0.60), and suffer from two main problems. First, pricing is far below the real cost of waste collection and disposal and, as such, does not contribute substantially to the sustainable financing of solid waste management. When local authorities are elected they tend to avoid raising fees, fearing that such a move will be politically unpopular. Second, this pricing mechanism does not provide incentives to reduce the absolute quantity of waste, as the fees are not set by volume, but per household.

A stronger commitment to reducing the overall amount of waste produced, in addition to the current focus on proper treatment, is essential. In 2015, the government has adopted a Waste Management Roadmap which aims to promote efficient and sustainable waste management and power generation from waste-to-energy technologies. By 2021, 75% of municipal solid waste and 100% of hazardous industrial and infectious waste should be properly managed, according to the Roadmap’s targets. There are also discussions about introducing a Solid Waste Act. These measures could be complemented by a strategy to reduce, reuse and recycle (the “3Rs”) to address the challenge of rising quantities of waste, in addition to the issue of how to collect and treat waste. This would put Thailand on the path to a more resource-efficient economy, in line with the sufficiency philosophy. Specific recommendations for the solid waste sector in the Bangkok Metropolitan Area (which accounts for around 16% of municipal solid waste generated in the country) can be found in the OECD report Green Growth in Bangkok, Thailand (OECD, 2015).

Addressing climate change requires both mitigation and adaptation

Climate change poses serious risks to economies, societies and ecosystems. Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions need to be complemented by adaptation policies. Transitioning to a low-carbon economy and adapting to the impacts of climate change are key medium to long-term challenges facing Thailand.

Climate change mitigation efforts need to be stepped up

Thailand’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have risen rapidly in line with economic growth. Between 1990 and 2015, absolute CO2 emissions increased from 80 million to 244 million tonnes per year (Figure 4.6). Emissions have also more than doubled in per capita terms, although levels remain well below OECD country levels (Figure 4.6). The overall carbon intensity of the economy has grown marginally since 1990, in contrast with most comparator countries (Figure 4.6), but has been on a declining trend since 1997. Thailand’s growing GDP per capita explains the trend of rising emissions, rather than energy intensity, population growth or the carbon intensity of the country’s fuel mix.

Figure 4.6. Carbon emissions continue to rise

Source: IEA (2017a), CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion 2017 Edition; OECD stat.

Thailand has set ambitious greenhouse gas emission targets. The Nationally Determined Contribution Roadmap on Mitigation 2021-2030 identifies the energy and transport sectors as possessing the greatest potential for emission reductions. Thailand intends to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20-25% from the projected business-as-usual level by 2030 (ONEP, 2015). The country’s energy plans, consolidated in the Integrated Energy Blueprint (MOE, 2016), define several targets to contribute to this goal. The Power Development Plan (PDP) 2015 set an objective of 20% of electric power generation from renewables (including hydropower) by 2036. The Alternative Energy Development Plan 2015 aims to achieve a 30% share of renewable energy in total final energy consumption in 2036, up from nearly 12% in 2014, by prioritising power generation from waste, biomass and biogas. It also foresees greater use of biofuels for transport. Finally, the Energy Efficiency Plan has set a goal of reducing energy intensity by 30% in 2036, compared to 2010, and introduces measures to increase the energy efficiency of transport.

However, the PDP also foresees an increase in the share of coal in the energy mix, which will push up the absolute level of carbon emissions. Coal currently represents 10-15% of power generation, and its share is projected to rise to 17% by 2036 (Figure 4.7). While the overall carbon intensity of Thailand’s energy mix is set to be lower under the PDP, thanks to the increasing share of renewables and hydro, increasing the share of coal to 17% represents more than a doubling in absolute terms (IEA, 2016a).

Figure 4.7. Coal and renewables will form a bigger part of Thailand’s power generation mix by 2036
Power generation mix

Source: MOE (2016), Thailand Integrated Energy Blueprint.

The plans to increase the share of coal may not be consistent with Thailand’s international commitments to greenhouse gas reduction. In particular, the Paris Agreement in 2016 requires countries to submit increasingly stringent intended nationally determined contributions. Future PDPs will therefore need to aim for a greater reduction in emissions intensity that may require a reduction in the absolute level of coal generation. As such, investment decisions being taken today risk locking Thailand into a higher emissions path.

As well as being a carbon-intensive energy source, coal-fired power plants can cause local environmental stress. Smog, acid rain and air pollution may result from emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, which can have health impacts for local communities. Coal-fired plants also consume large quantities of water. Given the water resource management challenges highlighted above, the government will need to ensure that the implementation of the PDP does not exacerbate this problem further. There has been domestic opposition to the development of new coal-fired plants in the south of Thailand, leading to delays in the finalisation and implementation of the PDP, which is currently under revision as a result.

Although the PDP foresees the use of high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) technologies for coal plants, this will not guarantee a low-carbon path for Thailand. HELE technologies do reduce the environmental impact of power plants, but will not be sufficient on their own to achieve a low-carbon energy mix. To be consistent with a low-carbon future, coal-fired power plants will eventually need to be fitted with carbon capture and storage technology in order to make the deep cuts in emissions required. Deployment will take time, resources and policy commitment, particularly for the development of a geological CO2 storage resource in Southeast Asia, which is not yet well understood (IEA, 2016b). As HELE technologies may be run for an average lifetime of 50 years, there is a serious need to reconsider the economic, environmental and social costs of running a sizeable coal fleet for decades to come (IEA, 2016b).

A greater focus on renewables could achieve the twin aims of increasing energy security and achieving a low-carbon future. One of the principal aims of the PDP is to increase Thailand’s energy security by diversifying the energy mix and reducing its dependence on largely imported natural gas. The International Energy Agency’s review of Thailand’s electricity sector concluded that Thailand could be more ambitious in its adoption of renewables without adversely affecting energy security, identifying untapped potential in the solar photovoltaic sector (IEA, 2016a). Thailand is already making good progress in this direction, introducing feed-in tariffs to incentivise investment and more than tripling solar photovoltaic capacity between 2013 and 2016 (IEA, 2017b). Feed-in tariffs have been introduced for very small power producers and distributed solar systems at the community level, supporting the aims of cleaner energy and energy security, as well as reducing regional inequality.

Climate change adaptation is equally important

Thailand is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Average annual temperatures have been rising faster than the global average, rainfall patterns are shifting and tropical storms are becoming more intense. Sea levels are also rising faster than the global average. Combined with land subsidence, the net sea level has risen by up to 25 mm per year in areas such as the larger Bangkok Metropolitan Area (Naruchaikusol, 2016). Climate projections for Thailand foresee increasing mean temperatures of between 0.4°C and 4°C in the next 100 years – with the central plain and lower Northeast region particularly affected – and an extension of the hot period. Rainfall is set to become more variable with a monsoon period 3-5% more intense by the 2100s. In addition, mean sea level rise could see shoreline shifts of 10-35 metres along the Andaman coast (Naruchaikusol, 2016). These changes pose major challenges to millions of livelihoods, core economic sectors, essential infrastructure, and – due to the potential impact on the agricultural sector – food security in Thailand.

Climate change adaptation features in Thailand’s national plans. The 12th Plan includes a goal “to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance the ability to adapt to climate change”. The National Climate Change Master Plan 2015-2050 provides more detail and specifies mitigation, adaptation and capacity-building targets. The adaptation plans focus on six sectors: water management, agriculture and food security, tourism management, public health management, natural resources management, and human settlement and security. Short-term actions include the development of the National Adaptation Plan (NAP), while medium-term actions, looking towards the 2020 horizon, foresee the development of forecasting and early warning climate insurance systems and local adaptation action plans.

The project to develop a NAP began in January 2015, and involves the development of a vulnerability database, followed by the creation of a national database of adaptation methodologies. The intention is to establish and incorporate climate resilience into national development by promoting the integration of adaptation measures into all sectors and at all levels. The plan aims to provide government agencies and other related entities at the national and local levels with an implementation framework, good practices, approaches and guidelines to develop their own strategies, management plans and action plans, suitable for individual sectors and areas, and to provide financial agencies with a budget allocation framework. The implementation of the first NAP is foreseen for 2018-21.

This represents a positive move as adaptation is largely neglected in current sectoral plans or plans for major developments such as the Eastern Economic Corridor. The latter, for example, foresees the expansion of logistics and transportation systems to include new high-speed trains, double-track rail lines connecting to key industrial zones, upgrading of ports and a new motorway connecting Bangkok to Rayong. Given the massive investment decisions involved, it is essential to ensure that this infrastructure is resilient to the effects of climate change – for example, that port developments take into account projected sea level rises.

Given the early stage of drafting or implementation, it is too soon to assess the effectiveness of the Climate Change Master Plan and NAP. The true test will be whether the process translates into awareness, mainstreaming and ultimately implementation of adaptation measures across all sectors from national to local levels. Caution should be exercised as previous assessments of Thailand’s readiness for climate change adaptation have warned of complacency (SEI, 2016).

Implementing plans will require effective central co-ordination that involves all relevant stakeholders, a strong evidence base (e.g. for climate projections), capacity building (especially at the local levels), sufficient financing, and mechanisms for monitoring, evaluating and adjusting approaches (OECD, 2014). Linking climate change adaptation and disaster risk management could also improve effectiveness. Disaster risk management needs to take into account future climate change, while adaptation can benefit from longer-established disaster risk management institutions, regulations, infrastructure and practices (OECD, 2014).

Environmental governance in Thailand

Environmental governance in Thailand is in the process of being updated with the replacement of the country’s framework environmental law, which has been in place since 1992. As in many countries, the policy mix is diversifying to encompass more economic and informational instruments, in addition to regulatory approaches. Environmental protection could be further strengthened through the addition of strategic environmental assessments to the policy mix.

The legal and institutional framework is being modernised

The primary objective of the Enhancement and Conservation of National Environmental Quality Act (1992) was to enhance and conserve natural resources and environmental quality through environmental policies and planning. The Act calls for and regulates Provincial Environmental Management Plans, Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), Environmental Protected Areas (EPAs) and Pollution Control Zones, and provides a framework for standard setting and monitoring, public participation and environmental education, and an environmental fund for investment.

Among other measures, the new environmental bill due to replace the 1992 Act will create an environmental fund for subsidising operations to clean up the environment, reward agencies with good environmental practices and set up new environmental quality standards. The bill was agreed by the Council of State and the National Legislative Assembly in January 2018, and is to come into force in the following months.

Thailand’s environmental strategies and policies are co-ordinated by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, set up in 1992, which oversees 11 ministerial departments as well as several public authorities (e.g. the Wastewater Management Authority) and public companies (e.g. the Forest Industry Organization). Sixteen Regional Environment Offices are responsible for regional environmental planning and reporting as well as monitoring and inspecting environmental quality. Provincial Offices for Natural Resources and Environment are located in each of Thailand’s 76 provinces.

The National Environmental Board has powers and duties related to submitting policy and governing related agencies in the area of environmental quality management. For example, they consider and approve the Environmental Quality Management Plan (the major 20-year long term policy on the environment) and other environmental plans at national and sub-national levels, set emission of effluent standards, and specify measures to strengthen co-operation and co-ordination among government agencies and the private sector.

The policy instrument mix is evolving

As in many countries, regulatory approaches remain the dominant environmental policy instrument in Thailand, although economic instruments, information instruments and voluntary approaches form an increasing part of the policy mix.

In terms of economic instruments, feed-in tariffs, tax incentives, and access to investment grants and venture capital have been introduced to promote renewable energy. Various environment-related funds also exist, such as the Energy Conservation Promotion Fund, which was set up in 1993. There are also a number of environmental charges, but these tend to be set too low or are inappropriately designed and, as such, are ineffective (see above).

Environmental taxes efficiently encourage broad-based action in tackling environmental challenges (such as water and air pollution). Moreover they offer a less distortive source of revenue and are transparent in their coverage and impact. In the past Thailand has endeavoured to develop a detailed proposal for comprehensive environmental tax reform (the 2010 Draft Framework Law on Economic Instruments for Environmental Management). While no comprehensive environmental tax reform has been introduced in recent years, Thailand has put in place other instruments. For example, a new system of vehicle registration taxes based on CO2 emissions was introduced in 2015 and the Ministry of Finance has developed a proposal for a carbon tax on transport fuels (UNESCAP, 2017).

In addition, Thailand is further developing the foundation for a national carbon price through its Voluntary Emissions Trading Scheme (Thailand V-ETS), launched in 2013. The V-ETS is a pilot project for a potential national, mandatory emissions trading system. The pilot scheme is focusing on the measurement, reporting and verification of emissions at company level, and companies are expected to be given tradable certificates by 2018-22.

Thailand still subsidises some fossil fuels, although the country has made substantial progress in reforms. The government has revised liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) subsidies, gradually reducing them for different user categories. In January 2015, it set a uniform LPG wholesale price across all sectors to better reflect international market prices. In 2016, it deregulated prices for compressed natural gas. Energy subsidies were 0.6% of GDP in 2014, but dropped to 0.2% in 2015 (IEA, 2017c). However, Thailand still subsidises petroleum and natural gas through the Oil Stabilization Fund, tax exemptions, and caps on retail prices for certain fuels such as biofuel blends (IEA, 2017d). The government has committed to abolish these subsidies in the future.

Information instruments have also been progressively introduced since the 1990s. For example, the “Thai Green Label” environmental certification was established in 1994 and applies to products and services (excluding foods, drinks and pharmaceuticals) that are shown to have a less detrimental impact on the environment in comparison with other products serving the same function. Thailand has introduced has an energy efficiency labelling scheme (the “No. 5 label”) that applies to 19 electrical products and eight heating products, and there are plans to extend the number of products covered under the new Energy Efficiency Plan.

Strategic Environmental Assessments ought to complement environmental impact assessments

EIAs have been required for certain types of projects since 1981 and are regulated under the Enhancement and Conservation of National Environmental Quality Act 1992. Currently, 35 types of projects require an EIA according to the Notification of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. In addition, three factors determine EIA requirements: (i) the size of the project – for instance, an EIA is required for iron and steel industry projects if production exceeds 100 tonnes/day; (ii) its location – for instance, an EIA is required for highways (or roads legally defined as such) passing through the Mangrove Forest Area; and (iii) its type regardless of size or location – for instance, projects related to the petroleum industry, the Central Waste Treatment Plant, the cement industry, the sugar industry and the mining industry as defined by the Mineral Act. EIA reports must be prepared by a consulting firm or an academic institution registered with the Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP). EIA reports must be first submitted to ONEP and approved by Expert Review Committees. Then, the project is authorised by the permitting agency. If the project requires further approval by the Cabinet, it must undergo an ultimate revision by the National Environmental Board (NEB) (ONEP, 2012).

Additionally, projects and activities that may severely impact the community with respect to environment quality, natural resources and health are required to submit an Environment and Health Impact Assessment. Currently, 12 types of projects fall into this category, including coke and coal industry projects.

The assessment of certain projects has been decentralised from the central to the provincial level. The Provincial Natural Resources and Environment Office and the Provincial Expert Review Committees are now in charge of reviewing and approving EIA reports related to: (i) building, urban services and housing projects in Environmental Protection Areas (EPAs) or high urbanisation provinces – currently, this regime is in force in 20 provinces and only affects projects for buildings whose height is below 23 metres or whose surface is less than 10 000 square metres; and (ii) industrial projects located in the Border Special Economic Zone – currently, this includes 10 provinces.

The current EIA system faces a number of challenges including: a lack of inter-agency co-ordination that has led in some instances to project permits being issued before final EIA approval, and in some cases even to construction of projects starting before EIA approval; insufficient public participation; non-compliance by project owners with the environmental management and monitoring plan; and poor quality EIA studies (Sano et al., 2016).

In cases of smaller, lower-impact projects where EIAs and/or Environment and Health Impact Assessments are not required, an Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) may be necessary. IEEs studies forecast environmental impacts using primary data or other available information. Perhaps surprisingly, EIAs and IEEs are not always required for projects taking place in EPAs or forest conservation areas. Projects proposed for such areas are instead required to provide an environmental checklist with environmental impact mitigation and preventive measures and environmental impact monitoring measures.

In some instances, there have been failures to follow or exceptions made to prescribed procedures. For example, in 2009 the Administrative Court ruled in favour of local activist organisations who had filed a lawsuit against the National Environmental Board and other ministries focusing on their failure to conduct environmental and health impact assessments before issuing licenses to 76 new industrial expansion projects in the Map Ta Phut zone (Excell and Moses, 2017). In the case of the Eastern Economic Corridor, a PPP process is being fast-tracked over 8-10 months instead of the typical 40 months. While greater efficiency in processes is to be welcomed, authorities will need to ensure that EIAs can be carried out effectively in this shortened timeframe.

More broadly, environmental protection is strongly undermined by the lack of Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) (Sano et al., 2016). Unlike EIAs, which are typically used to assess the implications of specific projects or activities, SEAs comprise a set of analytical tools and participatory approaches to integrate environmental concerns into government plans, policies and programmes. SEAs are commonplace in OECD countries and have been introduced in Southeast Asian countries such as Lao PDR and Viet Nam. In Thailand, SEAs have seldom been used – only for some large-scale state-owned project and on a voluntary basis.

Some encouraging steps towards the implementation of a general SEA have nevertheless been taken. Guidelines were first approved by the NEB in 2009, and then improved in 2014 by ONEP and NESDB. The 12th Plan (2017-2021) envisages the use of SEA in five pilot watersheds. The National Reformation Council, moreover, recently urged the implementation of SEAs, in particular for the following plans: (i) the Transportation and Infrastructure Plan; (ii) the Energy Development Plan (Power Plan and Petroleum Industry); (iii) the Watershed Management Plan; (iv) the Special Area Plan; (v) the City Plan (including the Country Plan, Regional Plan and Provincial Plan); (vi) the Industrial Estate Development Plan; and (vii) Megaprojects. In August 2017, the Sustainable Development Board appointed a Sub-Committee on SEA, consisting of experts and representatives from relevant ministries, which is to lay down the regulatory framework for the implementation of SEAs and determine the type of policies, plans and programmes potentially affected.


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