For the second month, Bangkok's air pollution remains at extremely hazardous levels, with particulate matter (PM) 2.5 often as high as 150 microgrammes per cubic metre of air.
The costs to health and the economy for Thailand are staggering. Recently, Thailand's Kasikorn Bank Research Centre reported that air pollution could cost up to 6.6 billion baht in losses for the healthcare and tourism sectors. On smog-related sicknesses, the high PM2.5 levels had already increased the number of patients with respiratory diseases by at least 2.4 million in Bangkok.
The Pollution Control Department sets 50 microgrammes as Thailand's safe level, with the WHO's limit at 25 microgrammes. But in fact, there really is "no known safe level for exposure" to particulate matter, according to a UK Air Quality Expert Group report. Simply put, there is no safe limit below which it is alright to breathe polluted air.
PM2.5 is extremely harmful as these very fine dust particles are small enough to pass through the lungs and enter the bloodstream, with long-term exposure leading to respiratory and cardio-vascular illnesses including lung cancer, heart disease and strokes.
Meanwhile, the Thai government's measures have wavered from the spectacular for temporary relief (shooting water cannons and artificial rain), grim admonitions that the public should simply wear masks and not panic, to just plain old-fashioned hand-wringing pleas to wait for the hot season so we won't have to think about this again until next January.
In controlling particulate matter pollution, Thailand needs a comprehensive approach that can combine both short- and long-term solutions with effective air quality management. In doing so, the country also has the opportunity to contribute to the global challenge of climate change, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
During the 1990s, when Bangkok smog was at similar hazardous levels, Thailand's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment took steps that eliminated lead in fuel, imposed stricter emissions controls based on European Union (EU) standards, and most impressive of all, regulated construction sites despite opposition from powerful oil refineries and the automobile industry. If effective action was possible then, it should be possible again now. A number of excellent measures have already been mooted by media, academics and civil society in recent weeks. Here's a quick list of ten things that the government should do to immediately improve this situation.
1. Treat air pollution as a public health crisis. Simply waiting for the hot season to clear the smog is not responsible public policy. The urgency is for the government and its agencies, along with public and industry cooperation, to act now to implement both short and long-term solutions to improve air quality and livability in our city.
2. Reduce the number of cars on the road. Incentivise area-based car-sharing models. Mandate and enforce car-free days and pedestrianise all areas that are easily accessible via the BTS and MRT, to demonstrate that life is possible without driving. Start with Sundays, as Paris has done. In the medium to long-term, redesign roads to make room for large pavements and cycle lanes, so that cycling becomes a key form of urban transport along with other public transport like buses and trains. Devise a policy on electric vehicles (cars, motorbikes, bicycles, scooters and tuk-tuks) and start promoting them as viable transport alternatives.
3. Incentivise the use of public transport. This also means increasing the capacity of existing mass transit -- including adding more train carriages and putting in more ticket barriers to reduce congestion in stations. Bangkok will see a number of new train lines come into operation in the coming years, so changing habits now will mean that more people will use mass transit for daily life rather than their cars. Introducing the long-delayed one-ticketing system or providing tokens for people who park their cars can be further incentives. Integrate Park'n'Ride infrastructure at terminal stations of train lines and offer free parking for commuters. Renew the public bus fleet towards modern efficiency standards replacing old diesel engines.
4. Require motorists to use more fuel-efficient cars with better fuel quality or alternative fuels to diesel. Improved petrol and diesel standards can help facilitate the adoption of better, cleaner emissions control technology, and reduce pollution and vehicle emissions. For example, European emission standards that define mandatory limits for exhaust emissions from new vehicles sold in the EU and member states. Electric cars could be one solution, albeit a limited one as they end up occupying the same road and parking space, and lead to increased electricity consumption.
5. Focus on reducing large vehicle traffic, particularly trucks with diesel engines and inefficient combustion. Enforce regular vehicular checks and make their movement highly regulated so that they are not crisscrossing the city during the weekdays.
6. Every December onwards, fields in peri-urban Bangkok start showing large smoke plumes from waste incineration, unintended dump fires and burning of farm residue. Local community cooperation is crucial to prevent these burnings in peri-urban Bangkok. Provide better waste management options so that burning is not the go-to solution.
7. Existing standards for factory pollution and construction sites need stricter enforcement. The PCD is a small agency -- bring in other state agencies and police teams to assist the PCD to inspect and shut down construction sites that fail pollution standards. The threat of shutdowns could inspire big construction companies, who prefer to pay pollution fines and continue with construction, to clean up.
8. Mandate schools to restrict outdoor play and exercise on poor air quality days, as Seoul has done. Remember, there is no safe limit for exposure. Educate teachers, parents and children about the dangers of poor air quality and the potential for lifelong respiratory problems.
9. Provide masks and healthcare to the most affected and vulnerable people in Bangkok. The poor and marginalised (especially daily-wage labourers) are burdened with the worst impacts as they work in the streets for their livelihoods. These include construction workers, guards, motorcycle, tuk-tuk and bus drivers, commuters on non-air-conditioned buses, street food vendors, maids and sweepers. Employers should be required to provide their staff with adequate protective equipment.
10. Stop telling people to not panic. People feel the effects of the haze from piercing headaches to burning lungs and allergies while the solutions offered are vague at best. Provide clear information, share data, address concerns publicly. In a welcome move, Thailand's PCD has set-up many large LCD screens around Bangkok showing pollution levels with red alerts, but more efforts are possible, and we can learn from other countries. The "Breathe London" initiative by Mayor Sadiq Khan uses data analytics, sensors and maps to provide Londoners with a visual tool explaining their exposure to air pollution. China has fought air pollution with transparency, using publicly available data to create air pollution maps to highlight polluting firms and activities. Real-time disclosure helps both locate pollution spots and provide the public with useful information.
Rajesh Daniel and Diane Archer, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Asia Centre.