Haze crisis a symptom of state of failures

Haze crisis a symptom of state of failures

Activists from various organisations including Greenpeace, BioThai and the Foundation for Consumers, gather at the government's centre to accept petitions to call for more efficient measures to combat haze which hits the country at this time of the year. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)
Activists from various organisations including Greenpeace, BioThai and the Foundation for Consumers, gather at the government's centre to accept petitions to call for more efficient measures to combat haze which hits the country at this time of the year. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)

The current air pollution crisis is just one of many symptoms of a system going haywire. The pollution crisis has been an annual occurrence for the past several years. Every dry season, we brace ourselves for the onslaught of toxic smog caused by exhaust fumes, construction dust, forest fires, and fires deliberately set on pre- or post-harvest fields.

However, before the dry season, there is also a wet season. This is when parts of the country from the North, Northeast and the Central region to the East and the South are inundated with floods.

Every year, this transition period between the wet and dry season is becoming shorter and shorter -- a possible result of the changing climate. But I suspect the way our political and social systems operate also have a lot to do with it.

Although the wet-dry transition keeps deteriorating as each year passes, the government's measures to cope with the problem remain more or less the same.

This year's measures to fight air pollution are no different from last year's. The police simply bring out their tools to measure the exhaust coming out of the tailpipes of trucks at checkpoints. Moreover, construction sites are simply asked not to generate too much dust and crop growers are warned not to burn their fields, or else.

And to show we are serious, schools are ordered closed when the air quality reading hits the dangerous red zone.

Also, each dry season, we hear demands for more dams to be built, more waterways to be dredged and, in the worst case, more wells to be dug.

Farmers are told not to plant water-hungry plants like rice. However, they are not advised about what to do with their extra free time or how to feed their families.

All the measures taken in recent years past have little to show. At best, some actions may provide temporary relief but in the worst case, they can create another set of problems.

For example, take the police checkpoints to measure tailpipe exhaust levels. They do little to reduce air pollution except give the officers on duty respiratory problems. Wouldn't it be better to make sure these vehicles strictly pass yearly inspections before being allowed on the roads?

My point is that these actions are not just the result of a lack of initiative by the authorities concerned. They are in fact systemic failures.

As some sage once said: "Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results."

Our government system is in a rut; it is at the point where no creativity or innovation can surface to see the sunlight.

As everybody in Thailand knows, we are a society of conformity. We conform to tradition, to authority, to power, to wealth. There is little room for people to think outside the box or to imagine the impossible. And what little window of opportunity exists for civilians, that window is forever closed for government workers.

Ask any government employee what would happen if they defied the organisational norms or traditions? The least you can expect is to forget about career advancement.

During much of Thailand's modern history, the country has been under the control of bureaucrats, either in the form of technocrats or military men. These are people of habit, of tradition. They are, in most cases, incapable of imagining different ways of doing things.

Some of them call this "the Thai way", which must be preserved at all costs.

But the Thai way also means that we hardly ever fix the problem at its root cause and we tend to let the matter fester before taking action.

We could have carried out in-depth studies with public participation so that the long-standing cycle of flooding and drought could be tackled systematically with a view toward more permanent solutions.

But, no, our political system is more attuned to the crisis-management style than long-term thinking.

We could review past mistakes and learn from them and search for new and better solutions. For example, take dam construction as a solution to both drought and floods.

We have built thousands of dams -- large and small. Practically every major waterway has been dammed. Yet, at the start of the recent dry season, the water storage level in most dams was way below normal capacity. Obviously, they don't perform to their usual capacity.

Yet, politicians and bureaucrats always clamour for more dams, which brings me to another, more important point and that is that the Thai way often means projects get implemented when they benefit someone in authority, not because they benefit the public.

Sure, many projects eventually benefit the public, but that's often not the first consideration.

This Thai way of doing things has been propped up by our archaic system of government, made even more backward by the current constitution.

If the government in power now finds its performance is being constricted, even incapacitated, then it is so by its own doing.

We may not be a failed state just yet. But I'm afraid we are teetering over the precipice of being a state of failures.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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