Blame game no solution to smog woes
Be warned, everyone. The ultra-fine PM2.5 dust will not be going away anytime soon. Last year, heavy smog traumatised Bangkokians until March. In certain areas like the North, which was hit with forest fires, dust-related air pollution lasted until April.
The government's poor response to the crisis simply makes us realise there will be no significant change this year.
Given the fact that this pattern of crisis now repeats itself every year, one cannot help but ask why the government isn't doing better? Why are its responses to the problem so lame?
Obviously, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has become frustrated with the persistent dust, and with public anger against his administration and its failure to cope on the rise, the PM has started playing the blame game.
"Indeed, the public is responsible and a culprit in the PM2.5 problem. Yet we cannot simply put the blame on people and penalise all the polluters because the outcome of penalty measures will create other serious problems for society. We need to rely on asking for cooperation," the PM said during a mobile cabinet meeting in the South.
He should know better. The battle against open burning that results in haze in the provinces cannot be won through cooperation. There need to be incentives to stop, and alternative solutions offered, to the destructive practice such as the introduction of new farm machinery with law enforcement -- the carrot and the stick, so to speak. The prime minister may also want to lash out at motorists who refuse to give up their cars, a major culprit for city smog. But will any cabinet members, the PM included, think about shifting to public transport?
Some ministers, and also government spokespeople, have tried to convince people not to panic. They claim dust levels are better than those last year. Really? The interior minister even brandished the dust as a "natural phenomenon"!
High levels of dust are a slap in their faces. Yesterday, smog still blanketed the city, as PM2.5 remained at unhealthy levels with high pollution readings in many out of Bangkok's 50 districts. In certain areas, the amount of PM2.5 in the air which can lodge in the lungs and enter blood vessels, leading to serious respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, surpassed 150 microgrammes per cubic metre (µg/m³). The government-set "safe" threshold is 50 µg/m³, far higher than international standards.
The government was to consider short-term measures to improve air quality proposed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment including a ban on lorries entering inner-city areas on odd-number dates, cutting the sulphur content of premium-grade petrol, promoting car pooling and public transportation, and a crackdown on open burning. The BMA said some schools in hard-hit areas may be closed, open-air activities should be avoided, and masks will be distributed. Sound familiar? If those measures worked, we would not be suffering so much.
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa sounded almost sarcastic when he asked: "Can people accept harsh measures?" He was referring to the implementation of no-car measures in inner-city zones. Does the minister, and the government in particular, not realise that people depend on private cars because the state has failed to provide viable public transport alternatives? As repeated in this column many times, the costly, albeit efficient, rail system makes the service inaccessible too many. When was the last time Mr Varawut boarded a BMTA bus or a van?
The Transport Ministry's flat-fare scheme, at 20 baht, for the Blue Line is laudable except for one fact: it is aimed at the wrong target. The so-called off-peak fare, which is also applied full day during weekends and holidays, suits tourists and those who are not on a nine-to-five work schedule. The flat fare, which is on trial, simply leaves typical white or blue-collar workers out in the cold. Meanwhile, the skytrain service distances itself from any promotions at all, while its gigantic stations only trap traffic fumes below them, making the pollution at ground level worse.
PM Prayut is right to encourage people to pitch in and be part of the solution, but -- like the fight against open burning in the farm sector -- the state must provide alternatives before it can really crack down on polluters. It needs a long-term plan of action, not a plethora of shoddy measures.
At the same time, the state should be aware that hypocrisy adds to the problem. Bangkok is in dire need of more trees, and green areas, that can help absorb the killer dust, yet we are about to lose a large plot of green area in Makkasan Park that for decades served as one of the city's "lungs". The area will soon be turned into a huge commercial complex. If the loss of mature trees is unfortunate, imagine the impact when the construction begins!
Editorial page Editor
Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.