Coming up for air
Thailand's surging PM2.5 dust pollution is damaging both the economy and people's health, but shows little sign of abating.
published : 20 Mar 2023 at 05:46
newspaper section: Business
writer: Molpasorn Shoowong, Lamonphet Apisitniran and Siriporn Sachamuneewongse
Worries about Covid-19 may be gone, but PM2.5 is back, plunging Thailand into yet another crisis.
As the ultra-fine dust accumulates, blanketing many provinces, businesses and households are increasingly complaining about the health and economic impact.
The northern city of Chiang Mai, a top tourism destination, this month earned the unwanted title of worst air quality on the IQAir global index, reported by a Swiss technology company that monitors air quality in major cities worldwide.
Chiang Mai was rated as having the world's worst air pollution, with unsafe levels of PM2.5 for two consecutive days: March 11 and 12.
Business leaders and government officials have called for more action to reduce the levels of harmful dust, which affects the health of residents and discourages tourists, especially during the first few months of each year.
Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, president of the Thai Hotels Association, said PM2.5 has been a persistent problem for many years, particularly affecting tourism in the North.
She said alleviating this seasonal pollution has proven challenging as it requires integrated collaboration between ministries, such as Agriculture and Cooperatives, Natural Resources and Environment, and Transport.
"If Thailand is going to make tourism a national agenda, air pollution and environmental issues must be the top priority as tourists are coming here for leisure," said Mrs Marisa.
She said the authorities should have a concrete plan to control the real causes of air pollution, such as burning of agricultural fields, carbon emissions and dust from construction sites.
Officials also need to tackle other environmental problems such as garbage at natural attractions like beaches, said Mrs Marisa.
She said the authorities should prioritise solutions in Chiang Mai because the province is famous for outdoor leisure activities and hosts large numbers of domestic and international tourists.
There were reports a few years ago that tourists immediately checked out of their rooms and left northern Thailand because of fear of the air pollution, said Mrs Marisa.
As many South Korean and Japanese golfers choose Chiang Mai as their holiday destination, they should be assured of clean air while taking part in outdoor activities, she said.
Mrs Marisa said Bangkok is also choking from critically high levels of PM2.5, but because there are more options for indoor activities, the impact on tourism from air pollution has been less severe than for upcountry provinces.
She said high levels of PM2.5 have not been a significant deterrent yet for foreign tourists as pent-up demand exists and more potential visitors learn the haze is usually seasonal.
The morning sky in Bangkok filled with haze. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Industry authorities are pushing ahead with new measures to cope with PM2.5 released from burning sugar-cane plantations after previous efforts failed to stop this practice.
Panuwat Triyangkulsri, secretary-general of the Office of the Cane and Sugar Board (OCSB), did not elaborate on new efforts, but said there may be increased "punishments" for cane farmers who burn their crops and sugar manufacturers who buy produce from such farmers.
The OCSB is talking with representatives of the farmers and manufacturers to jointly find ways to stop sugar-cane burning, which is blamed for emitting large amounts of harmful tiny dust particles.
The meetings have proved inconclusive, require further rounds of negotiations, he said.
"We plan to enforce the new measures in the next cane crop year of 2023-24," said Mr Panuwat.
In the current 2022-23 crop year, many farmers have already sold sugar cane to manufacturers, and the crushing process is tentatively scheduled to end before the Songkran festival next month.
"The Industry Ministry has tried almost every method to stop the burning, but has still been unable to solve the problem," he said.
Smog blankets Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
A number of cane farmers prefer slash and burn tactics because there is a shortage of labourers, mostly migrant workers, to cut the plants, especially in the central and eastern regions.
Despite the government burning ban for plants in many areas, these farmers continue to use this easy and quick method of harvesting, said Mr Panuwat.
To encourage farmers to cut fresh sugar cane, the ministry offered to buy fresh sugar-cane leaves for 1,000 baht a tonne for use as fuel in biomass power plants.
The OCSB said earlier it discouraged farmers from burning by deducting 30 baht per tonne of sugar cane collected through this environmentally unfriendly method.
Fees collected from burners were allocated to a fund to support farmers who cut fresh sugar cane.
He said the ministry also provides farmers with mechanical harvesters, but this and other methods have not been effective in completely eliminating the burning.
According to the OCSB, the total area of sugar-cane plantation spans around 12 million rai nationwide. The area has decreased considerably as droughts and low sugar-cane prices prompted farmers to switch to other crops.
Stronger measures are needed to help the ministry reduce burning, said Mr Panuwat.
In 2022-23, officials aim to reduce the number of sugar-cane plantations using the burning method to 5% of the total.
The OCSB's latest attempt came as the National Environment Board (NEB) last week resolved to back more stringent measures to deal with air pollution from PM2.5 dust.
The board ordered all 17 provinces in the North to cease burning activities until the end of April.
Siwaporn Rugsiyanon, a spokeswoman for the Centre for Air Pollution Mitigation at the Department of Pollution Control, said PM2.5 levels had reached as high as 225 microgrammes per cubic metre (μg/m³) in some spots earlier this month, compared with the safe threshold of 50 μg/m³.
People wear N95 masks on motorbikes in Chiang Mai, amidst the PM2.5 crisis. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
The number of air pollution hotspots from January to March jumped to 56,439 nationwide, with 31,719 in the North. Of the latter, 80% were in forest land and 15% in farming zones.
Ms Siwaporn said the NEB developed plans to deal with the PM2.5 pollution, including enforcing a zero-burning policy in both forest and agricultural zones in the 17 northern provinces.
The measures adopted by the NEB include: prohibiting purchases of sugar cane harvested by burning methods; limiting the number of trucks permitted to enter urban zones and how long they can stay there; a measure to make artificial rain; and a plan to set up PM2.5-free spaces.
The Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) is helping the government reduce PM2.5 levels in the transport sector through its Car Clinic project.
The clinic, run by the maintenance centres of participating automotive companies, offers free or discounted services to check and repair ageing cars, which often emit fumes that contain PM2.5 dust.
The older the cars, the higher the discounts, said Kriengkrai Thiennukul, chairman of the FTI.
The project is meant to encourage motorists to have their cars checked to reduce emissions of harmful black pollution, he said.
The Car Clinic has been held four times. The most recent one features 1,774 maintenance centres participating from nine car companies, running from November 2022 to next month.
The clinics are offered during periods when Thailand is suffering from harmful levels of PM2.5, often at the beginning of each year.
The past three clinics helped 252,414 cars to better maintain their engines and reduce air pollutants, according to the FTI's Automotive Industry Club.
Mr Kriengkrai suggested the government and business sectors should forge stronger cooperation to solve the PM2.5 problem more effectively.
PM2.5, which stands for particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter, can damage human lungs.
This size, which is one-twentieth the diameter of a human hair, can easily lodge in the lungs.
LAW ENFORCEMENT NEEDED
A recent survey by the Center for Agricultural Economic Research and Forecasting, Faculty of Economics, at Maejo University found that law enforcement is seen as an effective method to solve the haze problem in the North.
According to the "PM2.5 Prevention Measures in Northern Provinces" survey, there was a strong belief that punishment should be strictly enforced for offenders who burn down forests.
In addition, respondents said there should be campaigns to inform people of the effects and dangers caused by burning forests and agricultural waste.
Respondents also called for a budget to be allocated to solve the haze problem appropriately and sufficiently.
The survey had 714 respondents from the northern provinces of Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang, Phayao, Phrae, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai and Nan. It was conducted between Feb 27 and March 8.
Regarding prevention and coping with the PM2.5 dust, the survey found most people made preparations to deal with it.
Most respondents had equipment to prevent or reduce the severity of the problem, such as masks or air purifiers, and they cleaned their residences to prevent the accumulation of dust.
Other tactics included reducing or avoiding outdoor activities, such as exercising in the open air.
The centre said the haze problem in the northern provinces has been an issue for many years.
Burning of forests and agricultural areas by local farmers, burning of rubbish in the household sector, as well as smog pollution from neighbouring countries caused the accumulation of dust every year, said the research centre.
The current air pollution situation in the North is considered critical, said the centre.
According to a report from the Pollution Control Department, the air in the northern region has recorded high levels of particulate matter that affected people's health throughout this month.
People wear N95 masks while riding motorbike in Chiang Mai, amidst the PM2.5 crisis. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)