Covid threat just one of many
As Thai authorities battle to halt a tide of infections currently threatening to dislodge a halo worn so proudly by many who thought Covid-19 had been beaten on home soil, a UN report released last week comes as a timely reminder that epidemics come in all shapes and sizes and the present Covid crisis can't be allowed to distract from pro-environmental policy-making.
The report, Sand and Dust Storms Risk Assessment in Asia and the Pacific, was commissioned by the Asian and Pacific Centre for the Development of Disaster Information Management (APDIM) in a side event to the seventh session of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Committee on Disaster Risk Reduction.
Air pollution is certainly a subject familiar to anyone who has spent a prolonged period living in Thailand. Largely caused by a seasonal collision of traffic, heavy industry and farmers insistent on using burning to clear their land, the alarming levels of PM2.5 particulate matter now recorded in Bangkok and the upper north part of the country make daily headlines in winter.
While scientists can develop vaccines to deal with the virus-induced Covid-19, there has been no vaccine, nor cure-all solution to combat the health impact from air pollution.
Indeed, the financial loss of dealing with respiratory disease caused by air pollution should not be taken for granted. The Kasikorn Bank Research Centre reported that air pollution in the first three months in 2019 cost up to 6.6 billion baht in losses for the healthcare and tourism sectors. On smog-related sicknesses, high PM2.5 levels have increased the number of patients with respiratory diseases by at least 2.4 million in Bangkok, or about half of the city's registered population.
PM 2.5 is not the only air pollution problems in the Asia and the Pacific area. More than 500 million people in India and more than 80% of the populations of Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran are exposed to medium and high levels of poor air quality due to sand and dust storms (SDS) which also directly threaten the achievement of 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
As with PM2.5, SDS have socio-economic impacts on human health, agriculture, industry, transport, water and air quality. For instance, dust can cause damage to lungs and bronchitis and respiratory diseases such as asthma.
Globally, 334 million people and 14% of the world's children experience asthmatic symptoms which make them particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution of any kind. In addition, dust storms can transport pathogens such as meningitis and valley fever.
While any immediate impact on human health is always likely to grab the headlines, SDS are also related to climate change; their primary driver being the dry conditions associated with global warming, the El Niño phenomenon, deforestation and climate anomalies.
These ecological challenges are all closely linked, and attempting to tackle any single factor in isolation usually proves futile as underlying causes can be thousands of miles away due to seemingly unrelated environmental factors.
Efforts to combat these consequences of industrialisation and global warming have seen the Chinese government ramp up building hydro dams, leading to frequent accusations of water hoarding as countries further downstream along the Mekong region, including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, struggle to manage droughts of their own in tandem with artificially lowered river levels that stifle fisheries and harm rice plantations.
Equally, annual land clearing through burning, predominant in, but not confined to, Chiang Mai continues to have consequences that spread far beyond the boundaries of a single province.
The APDIM report looks at the meteorological hazards caused by extreme weather conditions and rising temperatures, while focusing on the threat that SDS pose to agriculture, energy, the environment, aviation, human health, glacier melting and cities. It shows how these storms worsen air quality and degrade vast farmland areas, disrupt commercial flight services, lower the efficiency of solar power generation and accelerate the melting of glaciers.
All of which may one day take a toll far greater than Covid-19, which although certain to become a significant "biographical event in the lives of millions of people", will likely not be the worst global health crisis this century, according to Richard Horton, editor in chief of The Lancet.
One can only hope that the "hubris" that has long prompted many to "assume the omnipotence of our species", as Prof Horton calls it, has suffered a wounding severe enough to prompt a full spectrum recalibration of policy-making. We need to take the first steps towards mapping out a holistic sustainable path into the future for the world as a whole and not just nation states.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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