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.
It is an intolerable situation for those living in and visiting the North. Campaigns to convince landowners not to burn forests, rubbish or grass repeatedly fail because they involve changing the traditional way of doing things. It is a practice used around the world as a quick and inexpensive way to clear the land for the next crop, returning valuable nutrients to the soil in the form of inorganic ash, and cleansing the land of weeds, pests and diseases. Acceptable alternatives do exist and education coupled with a well thought-out incentive scheme would be more far productive than small fines. But such programmes need to be launched long before the burn-offs begin and this simply is not happening.
An additional problem is that national borders get in the way and the authorities have already pointed an accusing finger at man-made burn-offs taking place in Myanmar and Laos. While it is true that our neighbours do have hotspots, this is no excuse for what is happening on our side of the border. It does point to the need for ministers of all three Asean countries to get together to try and sort the situation out. Playing the blame game will do nothing to improve air quality or lower the greenhouse gas emissions emitted by the wildfires. Some villagers in the North also burn garbage, either because no organised collection exists or to avoid high collection fees.
This should also serve as yet another reminder that selfish landowners who deliberately cut down trees, burn forests, and poison the air to satisfy their greed deserve no place in civilised society. Yet their corrupting influence seems to be everywhere.