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When the land turns white: Thai villages unite against a new push for potash mining

A former mango plantation and rice paddy lies barren after severe soil salinisation allegedly caused by a potash mine in Nakhon Ratchasima. Luke Duggleby/HaRDstories

As Thailand’s electric vehicle dreams are reinvigorating potash mining, the Isan region emerges as a battleground, where local environmental concerns clash with the industry’s expansion plans.

 

At first glance, the landscape in this district in Nakhon Ratchasima province appears dusted with snow, a rare sight in Thailand’s tropically warm Isan region. But this is not the chill of winter – it is the residue of salt from a potash mining operation, highlighting a concerning ecological footprint.

“I will keep this land just as it is, a reminder of the mine’s impact on our community,” says Thanawan Kainok, her steps tracing through the salt-encrusted earth of Dan Khun Thot district, which in 2017 became home of the country’s first operational potash mine.

Adjacent to the mine’s fence, this once fertile paddy field that nourished her family now lies barren. Saline water, an alleged consequence of the mine’s operations, inundated her fields, leaving behind lifeless soil where nothing will grow.

Thanawan’s community, like many in the Northeast, sit on large potash deposits – naturally occurring salts rich in potassium and sodium –, a critical mineral in the production of agricultural fertilisers. It is also a key input for a new type of electric vehicle batteries. 

Researchers at Thailand’s Khon Kaen University and elsewhere in the world have developed sodium-based rechargeable batteries, a potential game-changer for the electric vehicle (EV) industry. Cheaper and more abundant than lithium, sodium could make EVs more accessible and boost their adoption.

The Thai government is keen for this to happen, but anti-mining advocates worry it may trigger a boom in potash mining – and a potential environmental fallout for rural communities in the Northeast.

Community resistance

“We don’t want our brothers and sisters in other parts of the country to face the impacts we have been facing,” said Thanawan, addressing a panel discussion on the ‘Past, Present and Future of Potash in Isan’ in Wanon Niwat district, in the northeastern province of Sakon Nakhon.

In 2015, the China Mingda Potash Corporation, a Chinese company registered in Thailand, received a licence to survey this rural area for potential sites to mine potash. While the company has explored several locations, strong local opposition prevented them from opening a mine in the area.

Thanawan travelled more than 300 kilometres to join the discussion, held in April 2023, from her home in Dan Khun Thot district. After suffering extensive salinisation of land and water, allegedly as a result of mining activities, her community formed a protest group.

Villagers in Wanon Niwat worry that a new potash mine could cause similar destruction and contaminate waterways that tens of thousands of people depend on for agricultural and household use with harmful chemicals and salt. 

Shortly after the company arrived in the area, community members mobilised, forming the Wanon Niwat Preservation Group. With demonstrations, petitions and direct actions, such as physically blocking the company from the surveying area, they showed their opposition to the mine. As a result, the company filed several lawsuits against group members in 2018, accusing them of defamation and demanding compensation.

Wanon Niwat is one of three locations in northeast Thailand where companies have been attempting to mine potash, but have yet to start commercial extraction.

Eyeing the Northeast’s salty treasure

Potash was first discovered in northeastern Thailand in the 1970s. But the reserves remained largely untapped until the last few years, mainly due to a lack of financial viability and legal hurdles, as well as local resistance.

The recent shift towards mining potash is driven by changes in the global fertiliser market. Thailand, heavily dependent on potassium chloride imports, experienced a price spike in 2022, influenced by sanctions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and political turmoil in Belarus, two of the world’s largest exporters of the commodity.  

“The [Thai] government has been saying that the [mining] projects will reduce the import of potash and in turn reduce the price of fertiliser,” said Santiparp Siriwatthanaphaiboon, a lecturer at Udon Thani Rajabhat University.

He estimates Thailand’s potential production of potash at three million metric tonnes per year. This exceeds the country’s current demand, leaving a healthy chunk that could, he believes, be sold to China.

Despite having its own potash reserves, China, with its vast agricultural output, is the world’s third-largest importer of the mineral, bringing in more than 7.5 million tonnes of potassium chloride every year, mainly from Russia, Canada and Belarus.

Map designed by Emilie Languedoc

The country has long eyed Thailand’s reserves as a potential alternative source closer to home. In 1997, the two governments signed an MOU on Chinese investment in potash mining in Thailand. A few years later, in 2004, the China Mingda Potash Corporation applied for a licence to explore for potash in Wanon Niwat.

But it wasn’t until after Thailand’s military coup in 2014 that this exploration licence was approved. Keen to make more economic use of the country’s natural resources, the new military government also granted mining concessions in three locations in the northeastern provinces of Chaiyaphum, Udon Thani and Nakhon Ratchasima. 

So far, mining has only started in one of these locations – the Dan Khun Thot district project in Nakhon Ratchasima, operated by the local Thai Kali Company.

Salt poisons the land

“I always thought that they [the mining companies] would bring development to us,” Thanawan said while walking on salt-encrusted land back home in Dan Khun Thot. “I was really shocked to see this much negative impact.” 

After the potash mine started operating in 2017, community members say salt began seeping into the area’s water sources and the soil became so salinised that nothing would grow.

A process called solution mining is being used to extract the potash here. This involves injecting large quantities of water underground to dissolve the potash salts. The resulting brine is then pumped back up to the surface into large ponds, where the water is slowly evaporated off to leave behind crystals of potassium and other salts. The entire process is very water intensive, and the risk of contaminating nearby water sources is high.

Within two years of Thai Kali commencing mining operations in Dan Khun Thot’s Nong Sai sub-district, residents of the adjacent village of Sai Ngam began to see their crops fail, and traces of salt beginning to appear in the soil surrounding the mine.

What had been productive farmland growing rice, mangoes and corn is now covered with the white residue of salt for much of the year. Dead trees and bushes stand where healthy ones once grew.

At the villagers’ request, the Environment and Pollution Control Office, a Thai government agency, tested soil and water samples from around the mine in May 2022. It detected very high salinity – so high that residents have noted erosion to their walls and buildings caused by the salt. 

Duangroong Bomkhunthot, who lives in a village located more than ten kilometres from the potash mine, says that running water in his village became salty in 2019. 

“We were showering and suddenly felt itchy. The shampoo no longer produced bubbles. When we tasted the tap water, that’s when we knew that the running water had become salty,” he said, explaining that salinated water from the area around the mine flows down through natural waterways into the public pond used by his village.

The villagers bought drinking water for almost a year before they demanded someone take responsibility. Eventually, Thai Kali laid pipes to connect the village to another water source, but the price they had to pay for water ballooned.

In early 2022, when the company started to explore other possible mining locations in the area, residents in the village of Sa Khi Tun noticed environmental impacts close to a test site. Rice that once grew in abundance stopped growing around the immediate area of the mining site, and fish in a nearby pond died.

Fearing they would face the same fate as Sai Ngam village, residents came together to form the Dan Khun Thot District Preservation Group to oppose the mine and demand compensation. 

In June last year, more than 200 residents from both communities gathered to protest just outside Sa Khi Tun to dismantle the drilling exploration platform set up by the mining company, in a field that now grows corn. They viewed it as an unjust installation, arguing that the project had gone ahead without community engagement and information about the potential environmental impact.

Thanawan, who had returned home from working in Bangkok during the Covid-19 pandemic, decided not to go back to the capital, and became a leader of protests against the mine.

“If we don’t fight, the impacts are going to get worse,” Thanawan said. “We are fighting so people will see what is happening to us. We want to be an example so the same thing will never happen in other areas in Isan.”

Several attempts by this reporter to contact the company by phone and email for comments went unanswered.

 

Electric cars: A new reason for potash mining?

As part of a push to achieve carbon neutrality, Thailand strives to become an EV hub in Southeast Asia. By 2030, the Thai government aims to convert 30 percent of the country’s annual vehicle production into EVs. 

This has bolstered Thailand’s ambition to develop cost-effective, rechargeable sodium batteries, presenting a less expensive option compared to traditional lithium batteries.

Sodium-ion batteries developed by Khon Kaen University – the first of their kind in Southeast Asia – are still in the experimental phase for electric vehicle use. However, the Thai government remains optimistic about their potential to contribute to the country’s burgeoning electric vehicle battery industry.

It seems there are also hopes this will, in turn, boost the potash industry. Official communications on the subject often mention the country’s potash reserves as a source of sodium. Similarly, internal efforts to push potash mining also point to the potential growth in demand for sodium thanks to this new type of battery. 

This can be seen in a Ministry of Finance document presented to cabinet in January 2023, which states: “There are investors in energy who are interested in investing in the [proposed] potash mine in Chaiyaphum province. These investors are not interested in producing potassium fertiliser, but in using potash as a raw material to produce batteries for EVs.”

However, some experts have questioned the need for new potash mines to meet demand from the EV industry.

Nonglak Meethong, head of the sodium-ion battery research team at Khon Kaen University, explained that the technology requires very pure sodium. New mines focused primarily on potassium production may not be able to provide this.

The battery they developed used sodium extracted from rock salt mined in Thailand. At current levels of demand, Nonglak does not believe an additional source of the mineral is needed. But demand is likely to increase substantially over the next decade, she said.

“The technology to produce batteries from sodium will be coming in for sure, which is good progress. However, we will need to manage the resources and control the environmental impact,” said Nonglak, noting the need to limit repercussions on communities who live near mines.

Lertsak Khamkhongsak, a vocal anti-mining advocate and founder of The Project for Public Policy on Mineral Resources, fears EVs are being used as a green excuse to push for more potash mining. But he expects that most of the potash will be used for fertiliser production in China.

“There needs to be a more complete explanation of how they will take care of the pollution and [map out] appropriate mining areas, not just coming out and saying that we will have enough materials to produce batteries,” Lertsak said. 

“Even with just the potash mine in Dan Khun Thot district, there are already many impacts. If there is more demand from other industries, how will they be able to control the impacts?”

The original version of this article was first published in ChinaDialogue

Samanachan Buddhajak is a freelance journalist based in northeastern Thailand. He regularly writes for Thai publications such as Prachatai and is a recent recipient of Earth Journalism Network’s story-grant. His work covers subjects ranging from culture, human rights and the environment.

Luke Duggleby is a Bangkok based photographer who regularly works on stories related to the environment and the impact of pollution and development on local communities in Thailand.

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