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Tin Mines & Sewage: Why Phuket’s Water Is Foul

Why Phuket’s Water Is Foul

By Richard S. Ehrlich

PHUKET, Thailand -- Many of Phuket's small lakes and tranquil lagoons began as poisonous pits where greedy tin miners dug the earth, extracted ore and left behind craters filled with rainwater.

When miners belatedly laid down their shovels and other equipment nearly 100 years ago, they abandoned Phuket to a future scarred by a toxic acne of rotted holes.

This isle's future appeared to difficult to face, but something delightful happened.

Today, people from around the world pay big money to gaze at those watery ponds while relaxing at five-star resorts and spas, little dreaming that some of the juicy scenery lays atop ravaged earth.

Though the island cleaned up many of its former mining sites, however, a different potential doomsday now lurks which may turn Phuket into an island of thirst and parched land.

"Phuket being an island, there is always one concern which we call 'sea water intrusion'," said Bradley E. Kenny, president and senior environmental engineer of Thailand-based Environmental Solutions and Protection Corp.

The worry comes because lots of Phuket residents and businesses dig wells to extract fresh water.

Another jingle -- about nature abhorring a vacuum -- means the island's surrounding salt water will find out about wells near the coast, and silently ooze brackish fluid into the space where fresh water was removed.

Do that enough times, with enough coastal wells, and you can turn Phuket's underground rim into Swiss cheese, flooded by the Andaman Sea.

The wells then become as salty as a Ritz cracker, and any ice made from it can taste like frozen sweat.

"The prime example of that, close to here, is Phi Phi Island," Mr. Kenny said in an interview at his Phuket office.

"Five or six years ago, the deep wells on Phi Phi Island produced the same quality of water that we now get here on Phuket. But because of all the resorts that were built, and because it is a smaller island, there is now not one single deep well on Phi Phi Island that doesn't have salt water intrusion.

"The wells now on Phi Phi Island are up to 2,000 to 3,000 p.p.m. [parts per million] of salt, which makes the water unusable," he said.

The relentless salt invasion isn't Phuket's only drinking problem.

Bacteria -- single-celled microorganisms which can be parasites if they like you enough -- are responsible for much of the world's disease.

Similar to tourists who flock to Phuket to enjoy a warm, succulent ambiance, lots of bacteria also love Phuket, especially for microscopic water sports.

"The biggest problem [with Phuket's drinking water] is bacteriological, and that is mostly the result of improperly installed or non-functioning septic tank systems or small home waste-water systems," Mr. Kenny said.

Bacteria "could be leaking from the septic tank into the ground, which then gets into other ground water sources -- shallow wells, deep wells -- and it could be leaking into rivers or streams and getting into some of the lakes and reservoirs.

There probably are cases of mild dysentery and things like this, that could be attributed to the bacteriological problem in the water," the American environmentalist said.

Phuket town and Patong beach have municipal waste-water systems. But the rest of this gorgeous island has to fend for itself every time it wants to quench its thirst with clear, clean water.

The good news is Phuket is low-tech and doesn't have much industry and thus does not suffer from major industrial pollution.

The bad news is all those abandoned tin mines are out there, like ghostly black holes.

Lakes which filled the pits are now soaking gunk-infested sediment from the mining process.

Scoop up some lake water and you might find higher than international standards allow for drinking water in terms of aluminum and, in some places, arsenic.

"The tin mining has been so long gone -- 70 or 80 years ago -- that I believe probably most of the arsenic has settled down, [but] if there was some research done into the bottoms of these lakes, I believe they would find some elevated arsenic levels," Mr. Kenny said. A more immediate threat appears to be aluminum, which has been linked to Alzheimer's disease.

Aluminum is abundant on Phuket because that's the way the geology of the island formed millions of years ago.

It now threatens underground wells, pipes and sediment.

More recently, nitrates have infiltrated Phuket's water supply, often from too much fertilizer pampering golf courses and rubber plantations.

Nitrates can especially target kids, get in their blood system and, in some cases, cause "blue baby syndrome" in which a infant can turn blue because nitrates rob the bloodstream of oxygen.

"In general, because of the real lack of industry, the water quality in Phuket is quite good, surprisingly good," Mr. Kenny said.

To protect the future supply, the "tin mine lakes" will need special care.

If you are looking for something to do on your holiday to combine scenic views, relaxation and a bit of ecology, take a look at the inland lagoons along Bang Tao Bay and you'll see what some water experts hail as the rippling wave of Phuket's future.

Some of the most luxurious resorts lined up along Bang Tao Beach offer their guests the joys of inland lagoons.

Or, as the five resorts which comprise Laguna Phuket like to boast in their brochure: "The resorts are linked by sparkling lagoons."

Cute, Thai-style boats shuttle guests across the blue water which offers a "lagoon-side function venue," "lagoon dining" and rooms with a "lagoon view" along "the placid water of dreamy lagoons."

Note there is no mention of environmental mutation.

"Laguna in Bang Tao Bay? This whole area was a tin mine area and that is a masterpiece of an environmental story, how they transformed that land," Mr. Kenny said.

"Basically, that land was environmentally condemned because of the extensive tin mining. So that complex of hotels bought the land and reconditioned it and now it is some of the most successful property on the island," he said.

Engineers dredged the bottoms of the lakes, brought in topsoil and reconditioned the land because they perceived the biggest problem not to be from contaminants, but the loss of topsoil as a result of the mining.

All a result, not much was growing on the sites. Any lake that didn't want to be a watery grave needed help to make it lively. Today, the success of their cleanup efforts at Laguna Phuket are astounding.

Actually, according to some surveys of water tables, there is plenty of fresh water under Phuket. The vital reservoirs which are already in place can, if necessary, be multiplied with fresh construction.

"But the amount of bacteria we see in Phuket is more than what I would consider normal due to improperly installed waste-water treatment systems," Mr. Kenny warned.

To freshen fluid before it hits your mouth's salivary system, you can chlorinate and then de-chlorinate it and then pour it through a "reverse-osmosis" system which acts like a molecular-level sieve to block bacteria and other monsters.

You can also pray to the rain gods, because Phuket is virtually dependent solely on rainfall.

Until the year 2010, Phuket probably won't suffer too many water woes. After that, it may turn into crunch time if the population staggers forward at today's rate of growth.

Amid all the talk of salty water, bacteria and contaminants, the subject of future "water for sale" is already making some investors drool.

"There are a lot of privately-owned old tin mines from which people sell that water," Mr. Kenny said, suddenly turning glum. "Usually it is untreated water. Most of the resorts that are buying it have their own treatment systems."

Only a lucky sliver of this island -- mostly Phuket town and Patong -- is part of any municipal water system, which enables them to turn on the tap and pay the piper.

For future fluid in areas where there is no tap water, the hope is to rehabilitate more former tin mine lakes, so that water could be trucked to where it is needed.

But have you ever counted how many drops fit in a truck's water tank? Mr. Kenny, who also sells de-salination systems, insists salt-removal is much better than trucking.

"It is cost efficient. Components would come from overseas, sure, but the final assembly and manufacturing would be right here. The [de-salination] membranes are almost all manufactured in the U.S., but the pressure vessels -- because this operates at high pressure -- are already made in Thailand. All the electronics, all the controls, the frame, everything, would be locally made," he said.

"When people hear about de-salination, they don't know the advances that have been made in technology within the past three or four years. They think of huge plants that take a lot of man-power and a lot of skills to operate and that it might be expensive. But it is just not true. Technology in de-salination has moved forward, in many ways, just as technology in IT," he said, referring to the recent advances in information technology.

"Patong is the only place where we have announced that tap water is safe to drink because the distance from treatment to point of consumption is short, so the water is less likely to be contaminated before it comes out of the tap," Dr. Jessada Chaikunrat, deputy chief of Phuket's Provincial Public Health Office, was recently quoted as saying.

"We have not yet declared water in other places safe to drink because we are not sure."

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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