Old solutions no answer to dust menace

Old solutions no answer to dust menace

The polluted morning skyline, as seen from Phra Pok Klao Bridge over the Chao Phraya River in Klong San district. Levels of the health-hazardous PM2.5 microdust have exceeded safe limits in parts of the capital and its vicinity recently. Apichart Jinakul
The polluted morning skyline, as seen from Phra Pok Klao Bridge over the Chao Phraya River in Klong San district. Levels of the health-hazardous PM2.5 microdust have exceeded safe limits in parts of the capital and its vicinity recently. Apichart Jinakul

When pressured by newshounds last week about another round of PM2.5 dust that has blanketed the capital city and some other provinces for several days in a row, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon answered, "The government has tackled it all along." Really?

If he believes in what he said, the DPM should ask himself why we still have to battle this man-made pollution that has become an annual pest for so many years? And after many years, government agencies still deal with the problem as if it was their first time, as if they were inexperienced. Now I fear that this once-a-year problem will be permanent.

Maybe I exaggerate. I can see some difference this year: early warnings by state agencies about the coming particles and a series of advice (put your masks on, avoid outdoor activities, and so on) which in other words means: "Take care of yourself, we cannot help you." According to the latest warning, the dust is supposed to peak today. We have to pray, hoping for a longer break.

It's a shame that we have this high level of PM2.5 given the fact that a large part of the city is under partial lockdown because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

If history is any guide, this dust might stay on to haunt us until March.

So when the DPM mentioned the government is tackling it, I really had doubts.

I also doubt if he has ever seen a report from the Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa about the so-called "dust dome'' -- a phenomenon of fine particles forming a low atmospheric pressure zone and high-rise buildings trapping dust and other pollutants from the burning of agricultural waste.

According to the minister, the burning took place around the city's northern outskirts, Ayutthaya and other provinces in the Central Plains.

Mr Varawut said he has "asked" provincial governors to "ask" farmers in their area to avoid burning farm waste. He also asked them to consider imposing a ban on outdoor burning if the farmers refuse to cooperate.

If the DPM is excited about this dust dome theory, I have to humbly tell him there's nothing new about this. Anyone knows that a large number of farmers still burn farm waste. Yet state agencies still have no idea what to do about it, apart from "asking for cooperation". Would he be excited to know that some academics and experts have proposed a way out of this farm waste problem by using incentives, and technical and financial assistance for farm machinery from the government?

By the way, I was excited about various "at the source" measures I came across in news reports.

Last month, the Centre for Air Pollution Mitigation (CAPM) said state agencies are working hard to tackle pollutants at their source to reduce the fine dust pollution.

The centre, which is under the supervision of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, is working with various agencies, namely the Royal Thai Police, Department of Land Transport, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, along with the Interior, Agriculture, Transport and Industry ministries, which are implementing strict measures to control pollution.

The example cited by the centre is interesting. The Department of Land Transport will issue "a temporary ban" on the use of vehicles which belch black smoke, ordering vehicle owners to rectify the problem before the ban is lifted. Why temporary? We have the right to clean air, officers!

I would like to appeal those medical personnel who convinced the government to introduce bold measures against Covid-19, to do the same with PM2.5, which is a health time-bomb.

True, not many people are dying from the dust right in front of you right now, but the air pollution is indiscriminately killing the people slowly, many are whom are in the workforce. While stay-at-home practices work wonders in keeping the virus away, it is useless when it comes to the dust.

If the government does not do anything now, hospitals will be full of people with lung cancer and other health problems. It will be a huge budget burden in the future.

Indeed, I have zero optimism for next year that the air will be any cleaner. The problem will persist as long as state agencies stick to the same solutions of the past.

I mention this because at the beginning of this year's dust season, I watched a TV news programme in which Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang, the military choice for the BMA's top job, told the media about the measures the city was going to take to combat PM2.5. Those measures, including a ban on trucks from city (which was later lifted because truck drivers were angry), and school closures, looked so familiar I thought the TV channel had rerun the footage from last year. The measures he mentioned were as passive as that of previous years, and the dust never goes away.

I have to say I am disappointed that the Bangkok governor election has been delayed (probably until the end of the year). But on the other hand, by that time, dust will be a key election campaign issue, with key candidates making commitments. We might even be able to make a change at the ballot box, unless things improve.

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Ploenpote Atthakor

Editorial page Editor

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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