Don't take toxic air problem lightly

Don't take toxic air problem lightly

If April is the month of Songkran, surely March is known for its pollution, especially in Northern Thailand, at its peak. With burning season in full swing, air quality readings in cities like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Pai have become rather unsettling -- yet not surprising.

Over the past two weeks, Chiang Mai's average daily PM2.5 level has hit 172.6 µg/m³, according to aciqn.org. But if that wasn't bad enough, in the rugged hills of Mae Hong Son province, towns like Pai have seen readings as high as 400 µg/m³. These numbers are 3–16 times more than the recommended safe limits depending on who you believe; the World Health Organization recommends 25µg/m³ while the Pollution Control Department says <50 µg/m³ is more accurate. Regardless, one thing is certain -- 6.2 million people in the North have had to tolerate months of hazardous conditions for the better part of a decade.

Yet there's no media blitz this year and the government too has largely dismissed the issue in favour of handling pandemic-related matters. However, turning a blind eye to the issue won't make it go away. Instead, it risks normalising it and if left unresolved, it will cause irreversible damage for the region, its people and the economy. Do we really want to wait until people start dying or there is another public health emergency to tackle this matter? If so, we should get used to reading grim reports such as the one provided by Suwanchai Wattanayingcharoenchai, director-general of the Department of Health, who says 250,000 people recently reported eye and nose irritation while another 30,000 have sought treatment for respiratory illnesses. Beyond health issues, pollution has caused a double whammy for businesses also as hotels have resorted to slashing rates by up to 90% -- occupancy in Chiang Mai is down to just 3%–5% -- in the hope of attracting the few customers who dare visit.

Years of trial and error to solve the annual toxic haze crisis suggests that not much has been learned, either due to lack of will or a lack of willingness to understand. Just over 11 years after Thailand first started recording PM2.5 numbers, there is still no clear-cut approach about how to reduce bad air in the North.

In 2019, a report by the Forest Fire Control Division within the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation provided three main sources of pollution -- forest fires, intentional burning of agricultural land and haze blown across from bordering Myanmar and Laos. However, rather surprisingly, the report said 68% of all fires were forest fires, indicating that intentional burning by farmers or the number of fire "hotspots" associated with popular cash crop farming had decreased -- a figure the government has proudly shared to show the success of its initiatives. Yet the hotspot approach is flawed since numbers are determined by satellites capturing images over time, meaning the reality could be different with farmers resorting to shorter burn periods to avoid detection. Moreover, forest fires in the region are especially problematic and hard to put out because of the steep terrain, which accelerates spread and slows firefighting efforts. Even in California, where there is access to state-of-the-art tools, firefighters struggle and simply resort to the ineffective option of starving the fire of oxygen.

But the farmers alone cannot be blamed. What has largely been played down in the pollution debate are its socioeconomic causes. Marginalised populations living in the highlands -- who have been robbed of their right to own agricultural land -- resort to setting forest fires to clear areas for growing maize for export to support the animal feed industry which has seen a surge in demand for meat. Of course, this process backed by the state and the private sector, especially the Charoen Pokphand group. But they aren't the only ones. Other firms, including the Mitr Phol and Khon Kaen Sugar Industry, have also helped convert thousands of hectares into sugarcane farms in neighbouring countries. Yet there has been no meeting between the government and private players about limiting activity nor has there been any serious forum between neighbours about how to tackle transborder haze. Surely, heavy penalties are not too much of an ask to end bad behaviour?

The government should not let pollution become a black mark on Thailand's image. If the country is to be marketed as a safe and premier destination as the world begins to slowly reopen, it must not flounder. Otherwise, forget about tourists and get ready to see a flight of people leave the region as they move to other parts of the country for a better life and better prospects.

Editorial

Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : ploenpotea@bangkokpost.co.th

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