A holistic haze solution
After much hesitation, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has finally declared Bangkok and its vicinity as pollution control zones and intensified its efforts to reduce the levels of PM2.5 dust that has blanketed the region since last month.
On Wednesday, the BMA ordered all city-run schools to close until Friday, after PM2.5 levels soared into the red in several areas. The closures are aimed at reducing the number of cars on the road, which is a known major source of dust.
At first, the idea of declaring Bangkok as a pollution control zone was opposed by the Pollution Control Department (PCD), which feared the status would damage the capital city's image, which is a major tourist draw in the region. In fact, over the past several weeks, the PCD has occasionally downplayed the impact of the dust to prevent mass panic. That said, because the message contrasted with the Health Ministry's advice, what resulted instead was widespread confusion.
Also on Wednesday, government ordered the National Environment Board to take charge of the issue, in the hope that all agencies can synchronise their efforts better when working under the same umbrella.
Authorities are aware that establishing pollution control zones is only an ad hoc measure that, at best, enables authorities to tackle the immediate and short-term impacts of the haze, notably its effect on public health. Over the past few weeks, officials could do little apart from operate water cannons to flush out the dust -- a measure some decried as useless -- and give out face masks, which always seem to be in short supply.
The fact of the matter is, the haze can only be solved by addressing its root causes -- which includes unguided development, bad urban planning, questionable state policies that favour industries, and not enough effort to promote "green" lifestyles to the public.
Current weather patterns, which began in December, will trap stagnant air above the city until early March. The continuous construction of high-rises across the city will exacerbate the problem as massive structures trap dust particles. This means the haze will be around for a long time.
While the state is busy trying to cope with dust in Bangkok, other provinces are dealing with similar threats.
Chiang Mai is set to experience its annual smog this week, which is caused by forest fires. The topology of the city, which is located in a valley, makes it hard for winds to clear pollution from the area. As such, the province must concentrate its efforts on preventing the fires in the first place.
Meanwhile, provinces such as Suphan Buri and Kanchanaburi, where farmers often burn farm waste outdoors, are suffering in silence. Since the issue has not been brought up with the prime minister, state agencies are sitting idly by and watching harmful post-harvest practices haunt communities.
For Bangkok, since the transport sector is a major contributor of dust, the state should make mass transit more attractive. Negotiations must be held with rail operators to ensure fares are affordable, so as to incentivise commuters to abandon their cars at home. Bus services must be revamped to make the system more efficient.
In a meeting with several agencies on Jan 29, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Surasak Karnjanarat said he aims to put long-term measures in place to deal with the dust. The minister and the government have to realise his goal cannot be achieved without a proactive, holistic approach.
Bangkok Post editorial column
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