Cue the "Paradise Lost" headlines. Thailand's Phi Phi islands, a cluster of once idyllic islands made popular by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach, are falling apart. Six months ago, the island of Phi Phi Ley had to shut down its popular Maya Bay beach after throngs of selfie hunting tourists basically destroyed the place. The reefs were damaged by all the boat traffic, and the beach itself, well, does this look like a tropical paradise to you?
Now, Phi Phi Don is running out of fresh water. The island, the largest of the group, just doesn't have the water reserves to handle the thirst of millions of tourists a year. The entire island's water network is fed by water piped in from freshwater lakes on its interior. But, during peak months, there isn't enough rainfall to keep the system fed with a fresh supply of drinkable water, according to a report in the The Nation published this week.
"During the driest period of the year—from November to April—the island is packed with tourists, causing water demand to rise sharply, and meanwhile there’s no rain to refill the two freshwater ponds that are the only sources for piped water on the island," Sitang Pilailar, the lead researcher on a study of Phi Phi islands water supply at Thailand's Kasetsart University, told The Nation.
The price of piped water is now so high that local businesses have to resort to pumping water out of shallow ground wells. And, as engineers have warned for years, this kind of DIY water network can have some unintended consequences on low-lying tropical islands. In the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, there are so many ground wells that it's actually causing the city to sink. And in Phi Phi Don, all these wells could cause seawater to seep into the underground freshwater aquifer, fouling the entire water system forever.
Then there's all those showers. The island's wastewater treatment facilities can't keep up with the volume of water being send down the drain during peak tourism months. This excess wastewater is instead piped into the sea, where, thanks to all these groundwater wells, it too is seeping back into the water supply. If the situation continues, there's a good chance vacationers be showering in water tainted by someone else's bath—mixed with a bit of seawater—in a couple year's time, which is pretty gross when you think about it.
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"We’ve been trying our best to mitigate these problems by setting out projects to protect and clean the environment, but many issues are just too big for us to solve alone," Phankam Kittithonkul, a local government official, told the newspaper.
Phankam said he had asked the central government for more funds to address the wastewater issues and had suggested a cap on tourist arrivals, between 12,000 and 27,000 per-day, until new facilities were built. Thailand, on the whole, sees more than 100 million tourist arrivals annually, with at least 40 percent of those visiting the Phi Phi island and nearby Phuket during their holiday.
This story is just the latest to expose the dark side of Southeast Asia's tourism industry. The region depends heavily on tourism dollars, with islands in Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia being some of the biggest draws. But as the industry continues to expand, it's raising some serious questions about whether these islands—all famed as tropical paradises—can handle the impacts of all these tourists.
In the Indonesian island of Bali, there are so many hotels that it too is running out of water. And as development creeps northward, transforming rice paddies into even more villas, locals are facing an uncertain future over the fate of their own island.
In the Philippines, Boracay, another popular holiday destination, was closed to tourists for six months in April after conditions go so bad that President Rodrigo Duterte called it's once pristine white sand beaches a "cesspool" full of untreated sewage runoff. The island reopened in late October, but with a series of restrictions, including cutting the number of tourists allowed on Boracay by more than half and an end to beach parties (because of all the trash they leave behind).
Back in Thailand, the decision to close Maya Bay has already had a positive impact on the undersea environment. Reef sharks have returned to the beach, and the reefs themselves are on the (long) path to recovery. It's a happy ending to an otherwise sad story—as long as the people can stay away.