Alarm as haze plan 'lacking'
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Alarm as haze plan 'lacking'

Experts concerned by 'weak regulations'

A view of the Bangkok skyline. In recent years, Bangkok has dealt with haze pollution carrying heavy amounts of PM2.5 particles that are harmful to the health. (Photo:  Nutthawat Wicheanbut)
A view of the Bangkok skyline. In recent years, Bangkok has dealt with haze pollution carrying heavy amounts of PM2.5 particles that are harmful to the health. (Photo:  Nutthawat Wicheanbut)

Environment experts and academics are voicing their concern over the authorities' lack of preparation to deal with the upcoming haze season.

They say the government needs to strengthen its pollution control regulations to better mitigate the problem at its source and protect the people's health.

Speaking at an online forum jointly organised by Thammasat University and Naresuan University, environmental expert Sonthi Kotchawat said while the government has a national mitigation plan to handle annual haze, authorities don't seem to be preparing for this year's haze as they should.

In Bangkok and the Central Plains region, the haze usually coincides with the winter months, which bring cooler, denser air that prevents pollutants from dispersing in the atmosphere -- causing the concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the atmosphere to reach dangerous levels.

Meanwhile in the North, the haze usually comes between March and May, when dry conditions often worsen fires caused by land clearing for agricultural purposes.

Mr Sonthi said air pollution in Bangkok and other major cities may reach levels unseen in the past two years, as the start of this year's winter will see the country reopen to foreign tourists.

"We have measures to mitigate air pollution, but as we have seen from previous years, the enforcement of these measures is too weak, with each agency working separately, causing confusion which leads to a disorganised effort to combat the smog," he said.

"I still see no improvement to deal with the upcoming haze season."

He called on all state agencies, especially the ministries of Public Health, Industry, and Natural Resources and Environment, to be more pro-active.

In addition to tightening pollution control regulations, Mr Sonthi said the government should prepare an emergency action plan to ensure a timely response to the smog.

He also urged the Pollution Control Department to lower its PM2.5 safe exposure threshold -- currently set at 50 μg/m³ -- to 37.5 μg/m³.

As the burning of agricultural waste is known to be a major contributor to the smog in the North, Assoc Prof Witsanu Attavanich, from Thammasat University, said more substantial measures are needed to encourage farmers not to set their fields ablaze to clear them after harvest.

"Previously, the burning of sugar cane and corn waste was blamed for the smog in the Central Plains and North, respectively, but the latest studies suggest that the burning of paddy fields is contributing more PM2.5 pollutants to the air," he said.

"This year we need to focus more on paddy fields and come out with a clear measure to provide incentives for farmers to sustainably get rid of their waste."

Meanwhile, Pollution Control Department director-general Athapol Charoenshunsa said the department is drafting a plan to prepare for the upcoming haze season.

"We have evaluated the outcomes of previous years' haze control efforts to improve the plan for this year's haze season, so there will be many upgrades and improvements," Mr Athapol said.

"Right now, this plan is being reviewed by the National Environmental Board. If approved, it will be passed on to the cabinet for consideration."

The upgrades in this year's plan include public communication, to provide the public with clearer and more accurate updates, so they can properly protect themselves.

Another aspect was measures to prevent burning, he said, adding the new plan gives more power to local communities and authorities to oversee local fire management by giving each province the power to draft its own haze mitigation plan.

Local volunteer groups will also monitor wildfires, he said.

With regards to the mitigation of PM2.5 pollution in cities, he said the Pollution Control Department is working with various agencies, including Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, to enforce tougher regulation on vehicle emissions.

The Ministry of Energy will also promote the use of cleaner fuels across the transport and industry sector.

"The Pollution Control Department is also coordinating with Industrial Works Department to enact stronger pollution control regulations," he said. "We are well-prepared for the haze season to come."

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