Cash-spinner or death trap?

thankless work: Rescuers work around the clock to keep the water level at its lowest to make the mission possible. However, just hours after the trapped group was extracted, the cave was flooded again. (Photos by Patipat Janthong)

The dark, unpleasant smell and twisted passages inside a typical cave might not look too alluring, and the Department of Mineral Resources might even agree with you, given the paucity of cave experts on staff.

However, it is having to think again about its attitude to caves after the world turned its attention to the rescue of the Moo Paa Academy's 12 teen footballers and their coach, trapped inside Tham Luang cave inside Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non Park in Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district for almost two weeks.

The 13 footballers ventured into the flooded cave after finishing practice on June 23.

Rescuers complained the cave had not surveyed properly. Stung into action by the lack of information on the cave which could have assisted the rescue effort, the department has declared it will explore caves nationwide by working closely with the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.

It will set up a proper tourism management plan inside the caves with the safety of tourists its main concern, amid news the department of parks intends turning the Tham Luang cave into a major tourist destination.

That will upset those who say the department should be addressing the safety of the complex well before it tries making money from the international rescue attempt which took the life of a former Seal diver.

Speaking of safety, observers say the department must address the question of how safe the cave was at the time the boys visited.

While signage was said to be present, it wasn't prominent. Nor was there any timely warning to visitors that the cave was prone to flooding and that heavy rains were due within a week of their ill-fated trip into the cave's depths.

The boys planned to spend just an hour inside the cave. However, they found they could not get back out again as water from heavy rain and flooding off the mountain filled the cave entrance, which forced them deeper inside its interior.

A couple of weeks later, the rescue team was to run into the same problem, and had to rely on powerful pumps which extracted huge amounts of water from the cave just to enable them to get the boys to safety.

Located 453 metres above mean sea level, the Tham Luang cave is a huge limestone cave complex with a large cavern at its entrance. The complex has many stalactites and stalagmites and three smaller caves. The department says that to prevent a repeat of the recent drama, it would put up "clear signs" to warn tourists which parts of the cave are off-limits. Does that go far enough?

What is the plan?

Tawsaporn Nuchanong, chief of the Department of Mineral Resources, said staff are also faced with a rehabilitation task now the rescue is over.

He said the ecological system inside caves is sensitive and fragile so proper management is needed to protect and preserve it.

Unfortunately, no deep study has been done on the country's caves due to limited resources.

According to the department, the country has around 2,000 caves nationwide.

However, little about their geology is known, as few have been properly surveyed.

Mr Tawsaporn said the department established a cave exploration team two years ago with a purpose of surveying and collecting information about the key caves in the country. To date the team has explored 20 caves.

The departments will closely work together to survey the caves chosen by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation based on number of tourists visiting and their outstanding geographical appearance.

The first pilot project will be carried out at 10 caves nationwide. The departments will meet in September to draw up a list of caves to be surveyed, with Tham Luang cave as their top priority, for an in-depth survey.

"We're aware that the case of Tham Luang cave will inspire more number of people to visit caves in the country. That is the reason we need to have a proper plan for tourism management," he said.

After the survey, the department will produce a cave map, which is a basic source of information before the next stage of zoning caves according to the level of difficulty which travellers may face in gaining access to them.

tools of the trade: Clockwise from above left: Soldiers, park rangers, staff from rescue agencies and birds nest collectors join hands to study the area outside the cave looking for any shafts to connect to Nern Nom Sao where the 12 boys and their coach were trapped. Photos: Patipat Janthong

In the basic zone, tourists will be able to walk on a trail provided. At the next level up, forest officials or local officials would be needed to guide them.

At the highest level, some caves will be no longer be open to tourist visits due to the scale of the danger.

Russarint Siripattarapureenom, the department's geologist who made a survey of Tham Luang cave in 2015 and is also on the cave survey team, said the department is building up a cave database.

She said the department worked with Mahidol University to explore the cave in a climate change project.

It found Tham Luang cave is about 100 million years old and is regarded as a relatively new cave.

The team surveyed a length of only 700 metres, and from that one-day survey they came up with an initial map which gives the scale of the first main chamber.

The team went to the cave in March and found that some parts of the cave was still submerged by water, she said.

She said the department was also keen to find out if the cave should be declared a geo park, similar to the Satun Geo Park.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in April declared the Satun site was a Unesco global geo park thanks to its outstanding geological landscape.

At Tham Luang cave, a map drawn up by the department and a map by cave explorer Martin Ellis were both used in the rescue operation.

New era of cave visits

The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation takes care 169 caves inside its parks nationwide.

Thanya Nethithammakul, chief of the department, said all visitors who want to visit caves under the department's responsibility must register.

Moreover, they must abide by the authority's instructions on how to visit the cave safely. A local guide or forest official must accompany them in case they run into danger.

"Tham Luang cave will serve as a good example on how to visit a cave safely.

Regarding the Moo Paa case, I think people were already aware of how dangerous it can be if trapped inside a cave. So they will make cave trips with safety uppermost in their minds,'' he said.

The department is now restoring the cave to its prior state, which is likely to cost about 42 million baht.

Mr Thanya said the department has set up measures to rehabilitate the cave to protect the cave's sensitive ecological system. Tourist visits are likely to increase after the rescue drama, he said.

impenetrable: Tham Luang itself is barely explored, and the forest outside, part of the Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park, very green.

He said that everyone wants to see "Pattaya Beach" and the "Nern Nom Sao" slope where the 12 teenage football players and their coach took shelter to escape rising water levels.

If there is no proper management plan, all sensitive environments inside the cave will be affected by human beings, he said.

Under the rehab plan, the department has already cleared over 2,400 metres of pipelines for pumping water from two creeks in the cave.

The department also planned to restore the Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park's landscape to bring it in line with that of a museum to hold the statue of the former Navy Seals diver Saman Gunan, who died during the rescue.

For the long-term plan, it is eyeing an upgrade of the 5,000-rai Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non park into a national park so it can be better managed.

Mr Thanya said the park gets around 500,000 baht per year for management costs, which is unlikely to be enough for dealing with the likely big increase in tourist visits.

As a national park, it could get more money from national park entrance fees to cover expenditure to take care of the site.

A stronger law on national parks would also enhance forest officials' ability to protect the sensitive ecological system in the park. The department will hold a public hearing with stakeholders on its plans.

No timeframe to re-open cave

The 17-day rescue operation involved 657 forest officials and over 200 agencies. It had damaged damaged the cave's ecological system, in some places severely. Mr Thanya the cave will be properly surveyed once the water inside has receded to a safe level.

The department is also meeting its staff nationwide about how to enhance visitor safety. An order to close some unsafe caves during the rainy season has already been issued. It is not sure how much priority the department will give to ensuring ecological system recovery versus visitor safety, or whether the desire to make money will trump such concerns.

Sombat Yumuang, director of Geo-Informatics Centre for Thailand, Chulalongkorn University, said an early warning system would help ensure tourist safety.

Photo: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

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