The ghost-like appearance of Beijing and many other Chinese cities as they became shrouded in a toxic smog with particulate levels 25 times higher than safe limits last week was a scary reminder of the fate awaiting countries that fail to take their air quality seriously. A fate that was graphically illustrated by a recent Beijing university study which estimated that the number of people dying prematurely as a result of air pollution in four of China's major cities was close to three times the number killed in traffic accidents.
While weather patterns may have played a part, much of the blame for the chronic air pollution must lie with unregulated industrial development and rapid urbanisation which has spawned an excess of motor vehicles, the proliferation of coal-fired power plants and a consequent increase in the number of people seeking medical treatment for bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory ailments. But these are not the only factors involved in producing dangerous levels of particulate matter and poor air quality.
Those living in the north of Thailand will have looked at the images of haze blanketing Beijing with a particular sense of foreboding because they know they will face a similar ordeal in the coming weeks as farmers burn off fields, leaves, rice straw, rubbish, grasses and other crop residue ahead of the next planting season. Blazes are also set by hunters to flush out wild animals.