No room for apathy as haze crisis returns

No room for apathy as haze crisis returns

With levels of particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter -- PM2.5 fine dust -- surpassing 180, Bangkok was ranked as the fourth most polluted city in the world yesterday. People in the provinces -- both near and far -- have also experienced similar problems.

In fact, netizens over the past two days have shared photos of Bangkok shrouded with heavy smog along with air quality maps by different agencies. Some have already started complaining they are feeling unwell.

A Facebook user posted two real-time air quality maps which showed different readings. Dust levels in Bangkok and its adjacent areas which appeared on Air4Thai, operated by the Pollution Control Department (PCD), showed the less dangerous yellow and red colour as compared to other maps which featured red and purple for hazardous air.

Such a disparity in the readings is puzzling. However, some people suggested that the PCD's map was wrong and created to keep people happy about the fact that the air they were breathing was not bad. This is untrue.

Another Facebook user posted a message late in the afternoon stating that: "Phra Wirun (the God of Rains) is coming to the rescue". Her message, if anything, points to a lack of hope in state agencies in tackling this problem which has been affecting the country for several years.

The PM2.5 dust problem points to the failure of the state in tackling the crisis.

In fact, the bad weather we are facing is no different from that during the same period last year. However, reactions from the government this time are mostly tepid as if the problem has become routine. Some may want to make the crisis the "new normal", but I hope it doesn't come to that.

Last year, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, then military regime leader, was more enthusiastic about tackling the problem. He addressed the issue, making sure agencies took action including by distributing face masks, issuing a series of school closure orders, launching a "work from home" policy to ease city traffic, and setting up checkpoints to screen smoke-belching vehicles. The provincial authorities in hot spots were also told to set up a surveillance system to prevent open-air burning.

Some measures were knee-jerk reactions but at least they showed the government was concerned. Yet, this year there is a stark difference. I don't know if the government is indifferent but its lack of action suggests so.

Bangkok governor Aswin Kwangmuang yesterday warned about the high PM2.5 dust levels with very passive, calm tones. In a routine note, the governor said people with health problems should avoid open areas and that Children's Day activities in badly affected areas should be moved indoors.

Perhaps he was afraid that people will panic. However, there already is public panic. More importantly, I think it's time the governor panics himself. This problem -- which will continue for years is evidence of the sad fact that what his administration did over the past months was useless.

To begin with, the governor and his administration should no longer be complacent about the fact that there are two giant air purifiers installed in the heart of the city. Moreover, it should also abandon water spraying -- as shown in one of this newspaper's photos this week -- since it is not helpful. It's disappointing to see the city waste a huge amount of water at a time of severe drought.

As it is well-known that smoke from car engines is a major cause of the high levels of PM2.5 in the city, it's necessary for the city administration and the government do more to make public transport more attractive, in terms of prices and services, so that there are alternative choices for city motorists. This was mentioned several times during last year's dust crisis but it's rather unfortunate that those policymakers did not pay any attention.

In Thailand, a large number of motorists believe that by getting into their air-conditioned cars, they can "escape" the pollution. This is a misunderstanding and their selfish behaviour only aggravates the problem. But we cannot pin all the blame on them as long as our public transport is not up to standard.

Moreover, we also need good examples such as the one made by a top-notch official from the PCD. Last month, PCD chief Pralong Damrongchai announced that he would use public transport once a week every Wednesday to fight the PM2.5 crisis. He also encouraged PCD officials to do the same.

It's a small act but it carries a big message. Mr Pralong, as well as his PCD team, have set a good example.

It's time for meaningless campaigns and PR stunts to end. The PM2.5 crisis requires long-term policies and bold measures to combat the dust in the city and across the country, otherwise, the toxic haze will continue to haunt for many years to come.

Ploenpote Atthakor

Editorial page Editor

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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