PM misses the boat again on northern haze

PM misses the boat again on northern haze

The Yingluck Shinawatra government's handling of the haze crisis in the North is very disappointing. It is much more worrisome and worthy of concern than the prime minister's error-prone speech or her English-speaking skills.

Local residents have been inhaling smoke-filled air for a month so far. The level of particulate matter smaller than 10 microns, or PM10, exceeded the safety level of 120 ug/cu m for the first time this year on Feb 14, when the PM10 level was measured at 129 ug/cu m in Phrae province. The level later rose to over 400 ug/cu m in some areas as the haze expanded to eight northern provinces.

The number of people suffering from haze-triggered ailments has been increasing, while wildfires have ravaged more tracts of forest land.

Despite the escalating problem, the haze crisis has failed to catch the attention of the prime minister and cabinet ministers concerned. Ms Yingluck has rarely addressed the problem. When she returned from Japan on March 9, she went straight to the Northeast to woo voters instead of inspecting the haze in the North.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Preecha Rengsomboonsuk should have taken a lead role in solving the problem, but he did not.

It was only last week that the government sent PM's Office Minister Woravat Au-apinyakul to the North to kick off an anti-burning campaign, which didn't help much because the haze is too complicated to be solved by such a superficial effort.

Ms Yingluck finally held a teleconference with governors from the haze-stricken provinces on Wednesday, when the crisis had already eased due to increased rainfall in the region.

The government's ignorance and slow response to the haze reflect its lack of awareness and knowledge about this kind of disaster.

It should have learned from last year's floods that an untimely response or underestimating a disaster can lead to a catastrophe and loss of lives and property.

It was only due to luck that the haze and forest fire problem abated before it turned into another calamity.

The haze problem has been largely ignored by the government because of two reasons.

First, it affected ordinary people, not giant businesses.

And second, the government lacks knowledge about this kind of man-made disaster.

Haze is a complicated matter and solving it could be even more difficult than handling the floods.

To make sure that the haze will not flare up again during the next dry season, the government must seriously look into the causes of the haze which is not only caused by "hilltribe people burning down the forest to poach wild animals and to search for mushrooms and wild plants", as some officials have asserted.

There were also reports that some influential figures had hired locals to set fires in the forest to turn the areas into "degraded forest" so that they could be issued land title deeds.

The haze is also the product of construction sites, power plants and heavy industry. Therefore, it is not right to blame it only on brush fires and burning activity on farmland.

The government should commission a comprehensive study on the impact of haze on public health and come up with proper protocols for public health protection, which may include evacuation plans, instead of just distributing facemasks to affected people when haze occurs.

Additional funds should be allocated to agencies concerned to improve air quality monitoring systems, detect hotspots where brush fires start, and support the forest fire control task force.

This year's haze shows that this government is lacking everything from knowledge to political will, both of which are needed to effectively deal with this kind of disaster.

Kultida Samabuddhi is Deputy News Editor, Bangkok Post.

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