Chiang Mai city folk often complain that Songkran celebrations tend to get out of control in the northern capital. But the frenzied water-throwing does serve at least one useful purpose. It helps dissipate contaminants polluting the city's air. This air has been barely fit to breathe for the past three months because of the annual practice of burning off fields, leaves, rice straw and garbage ahead of the new planting season. The situation is also worsening with expanding contract farming on the hills. Blazes are also set by hunters to flush out wild animals. While everyone deplores this, no one seems able to control it.
As someone who was born and raised in Chiang Mai, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is well aware of the impact this choking haze has on people's health, the region's economy and tourism. A year ago, she demanded that the governors of the nine worst-affected provinces take responsibility if provincial authorities failed to stop the burn-off of crop residue by employees of wealthy landowners. Although the smoke haze was as bad as ever, the governors kept their jobs. This year banners bearing Ms Yingluck's image and the entreaty "Don't burn the land" have been placed at strategic points throughout the North and police ordered to arrest offenders. But, to no one's surprise, the conditions are as bad as ever.
The air quality in some provinces has deteriorated to a dangerous level, especially in Mae Hong Son. Worsening the situation is a severe drought that has caused the Mekong River to become so shallow in Chiang Rai that up to 20 cargo boats have been stranded. In economic terms the smoke haze and drought will inflict a loss running into hundreds of millions of baht. In human terms the toll is frightening with 20,787 people treated in Chiang Mai hospitals for respiratory and other problems in February alone, and 18,406 admitted in the first three weeks of this month. Predictably, children and the elderly have been worst affected. At least one fireman has been killed.
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