Thailand may be an economic miracle, but its rivers have become so polluted that fish must stick their heads out of the water to breathe, those who track the country's economic development say.

In Bangkok, they attest, nearly 8 million residents scuffle with some 3 million cars and motorcycles for dwindling space and usable air, while sidestepping rotting garbage and hazardous waste.The tourist industry, meanwhile, is running scared as travelers avoid beaches that can no longer accommodate swimmers.

Hotels rest uncomfortably beside their own waste.

Like many developing nations, Thailand must come to grips with industrial wastes and cleanup. And Thailand's waste could be an economic gold mine, officials say, for those companies specializing in environmental cleanup.

Thai policy-makers warn that their country's impressive economic development - which has averaged or exceeded 7 percent annual growth during the past three decades - will be choked off unless problems of pollution, resource depletion and urban congestion are addressed in a hurry.

A group of Thai officials recently spent 16 days in Canada and the United States touting a wealth of business opportunities for U.S. and Canadian environmental firms.

It was their third such visit for the year.

"The people themselves feel the impact. No one has to tell them out loud that the surrounding environment has deteriorated and forcibly impacted their lives. We need a lot of change, a new direction in order to grow economically, and in quality of life as well," said Bhichit Rattakul, director the Thai Anti-Pollution & Environmental Protection Foundation.

"With all of these opportunities we need foreign technologies," said Chackchai Panichapat, deputy secretary general of Thailand's Board of Investment.

Thailand's demand for green technology in the coming decade could be as high as $10 billion - for everything from monitoring systems to treatment equipment, and from catalytic converters to auditing and laboratory work, Thai officials said.

"The environment has been chosen as a key window of opportunity for American companies," said Richard Frankel, head of MK-Intertec Ltd., a Bangkok environmental services company.

Demand for environmental equipment and services is growing just as rapidly worldwide. The U.S. Environmental Technology Export Council put that demand at $295 billion last year. By 1997, the council estimates that demand will rise more than 44 percent to $426 billion a year.

U.S. companies - already big sellers of consulting services, various types of equipment to control air and water pollution, wastewater management technology and know-how - have particularly good prospects in Thailand because of that country's affinity for American products, experts say.

In a recent report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said U.S. exports of environmental protection equipment climbed 70 percent between 1989 and 1991.

''We are suddenly seeing the green consumer in the emerging markets of Southeast Asia," Paul Clements-Hunt, director of Environmental Services Group Co. in Bangkok. "Some of the largest Thai companies are starting to spend very seriously. The checkbook is out."

In Bangkok, denizens churn out more than 6,000 tons of solid waste every day, nearly one-tenth of which goes uncollected, Thai officials said. Of the city's three landfills, one no longer operates. The others will reach capacity within a couple of years.

On top of that, the country has roughly 60,000 registered factories, 20,000 of which are categorized as serious polluters, and just a single centralized hazardous solid and waste water treatment facility operating in the Bangkok area.

If back-street and shop house operations are taken into account, an estimated 120,000 industrial and manufacturing operations generate some 2 million tons of hazardous waste a year, with a projected increase to 6 million by the year 2000, Mr. Clements-Hunt said.

The Thai government said it will launch a $1 billion wastewater and sewer treatment project and the provincial water authority will pursue a $500 million privatization program.

Other projects include $400 million worth of planned smokestack emission remediation by local power authorities; $57 million in provincial government proposals; $56 million public utilities contracts; and $40 million public waste water projects.

Companies must know how to conduct themselves in Thailand, experts warn.

A major U.S. engineering firm recently had to scuttle its bid for a contract to write an environmental impact report after it found that it was not registered with a Thai national environmental board.

The problem was further compounded by a requirement that companies must be 51 percent Thai-owned to get the work.


Thai officials say the country could spend up to $10 billion on environmental cleanup in the next 10 years. The figures below represent the highest estimates.

Energy Efficient Products $3.0 billion

Municipal Water Supply $2.0 billion

Vehicle Air Pollution $2.0 billion

Municipal Wastewater $800 million

Industrial Air Pollution $600 million

Industrial Wastewater $400 million

Solid Waste $400 million

Hazardous Wastes $120 million

Private Property Development $200 million