Smoking out the truth up north

Smoking out the truth up north

EXPLAINER: Though PM2.5 levels are hazardous in and around Chiang Mai, the government doesn't want to declare the area a disaster zone for tourism purposes

In the early months of recent years, residents in northern Thailand, particularly Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son, have braced for choking PM2.5 air pollution.

Surrounded by mountains and hills, these provinces have repeatedly been ranked as the most air-polluted areas in the world.

The effect has levied a heavy toll on the public healthcare system, while residents buy air purifiers and face masks to protect themselves.

Those with resources can afford to pay for private health insurance, but most people in the province are unable to do so.

Opposition political parties, doctors and civic groups are urging the government to consider designating the affected provinces a disaster area.

Though the smog could have severe long-term effects on tourism once tourists become aware of the issue and opt for other destinations with cleaner air, the government has insisted it does not want to designate these provinces disaster areas.

Q: Why is the disaster designation a disputed topic?

With the fiscal budget allocation delayed from October 2023 until likely next month, opposition political parties on Saturday urged the government to declare Chiang Mai a disaster area, saying this status would allow the province to use an additional budget to help control forest fires.

However, the government and some locals disagreed with the declaration, saying it would prompt insurance companies to reject claims from any incidents occurring within the disaster area.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said the government had to protect the tourism industry. He said the decision to hold off on the disaster designation was the result of thoughtful discussions with agencies, as such a move might discourage tourists from visiting Thailand.

Punlop Saejew, president of Chiang Mai Tourism Council, said a disaster designation would likely decrease tourist flow, though the causes of the smog have yet to be fixed.

He said from March 1-16, Chiang Mai had direct flights with more than 52,000 tourist arrivals, generating at least 1 billion baht for the province, especially for supply chains in the tourism sector.

Without tourists, tourism operators might accumulate debts, leading to an avalanche of non-performing loans, said Mr Punlop.

He previously said a mechanism such as the Clean Air Act is essential for dealing with PM2.5 haze.

The air pollution problem requires all stakeholders to cooperate in implementing appropriate regulations, including severe punishment for rulebreakers and valuable rewards for those who follow the rules, said Mr Punlop.

For instance, farmers who eschew slash-and-burn farming should be rewarded by the government, offering support for their crops, he said.

Mr Punlop encouraged the government to establish a fund to reduce air pollution through a fundraising scheme in exchange for investor incentives, such as a tax reduction.

The fund could be used to transform local communities that burn fields by offering more environmentally friendly jobs, he said.

Other options include providing sufficient tools and equipment to reduce burning and smog, such as supporting air purifiers in communities and firebreaks during burning.

Mr Punlop admitted operators were concerned about the perception a polluted Chiang Mai would have on long-stay visitors and digital nomads.

These groups tend to travel back to their home countries during March and April, the peak period for smog, he said.

Meanwhile, commenters on the prime minister's X account said he should prioritise the health of people in Chiang Mai rather than concerns about the tourism industry.

Q: How is this issue affecting locals?

Kamonsan Srivirach, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce of Phayao, said declaring Chiang Mai a disaster zone based on excessive levels of PM2.5 dust requires careful consideration as it may dampen the tourism sector.

However, one upside to a declaration would be more funding for disaster mitigation and healthcare.

Thomas Wilson, president and chief executive of Allianz Ayudhya Assurance, said pollution is an issue for Thailand.

In the northern region, he said the pollution is caused by forest fires and burning crop fields, while Bangkok faces heavy traffic congestion, factories, construction and the effects from fires in the northern provinces.

A recent article indicated the high air pollution levels were a concern for the Public Health Ministry, which recently warned public hospitals across the country to prepare for a spike in respiratory problems because of atmospheric conditions, said Mr Wilson.

"Increased levels of pollution are a health problem. According to the Respiratory Health Association, air pollution causes irritation, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, asthma episodes and chest pain," he told the Bangkok Post.

"Extended exposure to air pollution puts individuals at risk for lung cancer, heart attacks and stroke, with more pronounced potential impact on individuals with higher respiratory rates, such as children and the elderly, those that work outdoors and those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions.

"An air quality index of between 150-200 potentially affects everyone, especially more sensitive groups."

Q: What is the effect on the insurance industry?

The potential impact on the private insurance industry has been muted compared with the public health effect because of a variance in insurance penetration rates in the North versus Bangkok.

In general, health insurance penetration rates are greater in Bangkok because of higher levels of income and education about the industry.

As such, the impact on respiratory disease claims is likely to be higher in Bangkok than in the North, but "lower than the impact on the general population in both areas," said Mr Wilson.

He said there are many potential government and private responses to address this issue, including strict enforcement of forest burning bans, greater incentives to work from home and commute less whenever possible, and reduced electricity utilisation.

"These public and private measures should be investigated and implemented before more drastic measures," said Mr Wilson.

Additional reporting by Phusadee Arunmas

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