Thailand’s impending garbage crisis is putting a strain on communities in the Northeast as municipalities are rushing to modernize their waste management systems, often with unwanted consequences for local residents.

By Sakunrat Deevong and Thunchanok Thaenkaew

UBON RATCHATHANI  – The farming village of Don Pha-ung, some 30 kilometers south of Ubon Ratchathani City, seems worlds apart from the urban center of the provincial capital but one thing intimately connects the two: garbage. Since a waste incinerator was set up next to the community, residents have been confronted with the foul-smelling side effects of urban waste management.

Sitting among rice paddies, Don Pha-ung retains the charm of a rural Isaan village but administratively the community of 100 households is part of Warin Chamrap Town Municipality, an expanding suburb south of Ubon Ratchathani City.

For sixteen years, Don Pha-ung residents have been concerned about a landfill that the Municipality set up a just five kilometers outside of the village. Every day the landfill receives 300 tons of trash according to statistics from the municipality. As the mountains of garbage kept growing on the 282 rai (about 111 acres) site, villagers had to get used to the foul odor that the wind carries into their homes.

But when a waste incineration plant started operating next to the landfill in October last year life in the village became unbearable, residents told The Isaan Record. As the incinerator operates around the clock its sends thick clouds of smoke and dust wafting through village.

The landfill is located 5 kilometers from Don Pha-ung village and residents have been complaining for years about the foul smell that the wind carries into their homes.

Choetsak Lasawang, a local resident, says that other communities in the municipality are benefitting from the landfill and the incinerator but Don Pha-ung Village is left on the losing end.

Village Chief Prasit Nilaket says he didn’t know what the effects the landfill and the incinerators would have on villagers’ lives. He claims that the waste treatment facility has been releasing wastewater into communal canals, causing a series of fish kills.

Some villagers worry that rainwater has been seeping through the trash, contaminating groundwater, and making rice from the surrounding paddies unviable for consumption.

Residents stopped collecting rainwater for consumption as they feared it might be a hazard to their health. The need to purchase drinking water increased the financial burden on many households in the village.

When Mr. Prasit and other locals confronted operators of the waste treatment facility with accusations, the authorities threatened to press charges for trespassing.

“We can’t do anything, we just have to put up with it,” said Mr. Pravit. “But I want the authorities to solve our problems and take care of people’s health. For example, I want to see health check-ups for the residents,” says Mr. Prasit. “Moreover, the roads that have been damaged by the garbage trucks should be fixed and cleaned up as much as possible.”

Officials at the municipality shrug at residents’ repeated complaints, claiming that both the operation of the landfill and the incinerator is following government regulations.

Nitipan Saensuk, Warin Chamrap Municipality’s sanitation scientist, insists that the construction of the landfill has complied with engineering standards: a plastic layer covers the bottom of the landfill protecting the soil from leakage, and drainage and gas discharge systems were properly installed.

“I insist that no wastewater has been released into the canals or the residents’ rice paddies like it’s been claimed [by Dong Pha-ung residents]. This misunderstanding is based on misinformation that was spread among residents by professors or college students doing their fieldwork,” says Mr. Nitipat.

In October 2016 a waste incinerator started operating at the waste treatment facility around the clock sending thick clouds of smoke and clouds into the village, residents say.

The municipality prohibits the release of wastewater into communal canals unless it is deemed absolutely necessary. The water treatment system at the Dong Pha-ung landfill has been expanded to increase its efficiency, according to Mr. Nitipat. No other municipality in Ubon Ratchathani has a system that compares to the one in Warin Chamrap.

Head of Warin Chamrap Municipality’s Public Health Office Thitima Khotruro said they already responded to complaints about the smog emitted from the incinerator. The operators were ordered to reduce incineration hours to the daytime hoping that it would curb air pollution in the area, Ms. Thitima said.

“But if we want a sustainable solution, the residents also have to cooperate with the Municipality,” Ms. Thitima says without providing further details.

However, months after the interviews with representatives from the Warin Chamrap Municipality, Don Pha-ung residents say nothing has changed. Despite filing several official complaints to the Municipality, residents are losing hope that their issues will be addressed.

“Nothing will come of our complaints,” says Mr. Choetsak. “We are like little sparrows, their chirping heard by no one. Against elephants’ feet come crushing down, the sparrows’ beaks stand no chance.”

This article was first published in Thai on December 13, 2016. It was translated and edited by The Isaan Record