Political indifference fuels air-pollution crisis
Government's 'command-and-control' mentality only gives the appearance of a response, but little is actually done.
There is no way of putting it, say leading academics, other than that this government is ill-equipped to stop the air pollution crisis from spiralling out of control. Despite proclamations, like Natural Resources and Environment Minister Warawut Silpa-archa's goal to solve the PM2.5 problem by 2022, the policy-making culture seems to be blind to what nature is telling us. Instead, lawmakers downplay threats to human health, allowing conflicts of interest to overshadow meaningful advances toward solutions.
Asst Prof Surat Bualert, dean of Kasetsart University's Environment Faculty, says the data for Bangkok's air quality reveals we are entering a new era. The volume of PM2.5, or fine dust particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres, that exceed safe levels are lingering in the air longer than ever before.
"Their ongoing presence creates more unpredictability at a time when the changing climate may also be contributing to extreme weather events, like the prolonged stagnation that fuelled Bangkok's pollution crisis this year," he said.
Furthermore, Prof Thanawat Jarupongsakul, chairman of the National Strategic Drafting Committee on Green Growth, says his research in collaboration with the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology shows that conditions similar to those in Bangkok early this year, "are likely to become more intense because the pollution sources themselves help build up the inversion layers that trap the dust underneath".
Prof Thanawat, who also chairs the Thai Global Warming Academy, says outdoor fires generate gases along with PM2.5 particulate matter. Photochemical reactions transform these gases into ozone particles, which are not just harmful pollutants, but also help build up inversion layers, which prevent the air below from rising, thus trapping any pollutants that are present.
Often, these inversion layers are associated with high-pressure weather systems descending from China. Common between December and May, this annual phenomenon contributes to the urban myth that China's "winter wind" is the source of Bangkok's winter pollution.
Nothing can be further from the truth, says Dr Thanawat. Rapid urbanisation has transformed Bangkok's landscape, creating a heat-island effect that helps stimulate the formation of inversion layers during winter, and trapping the area's self-generated pollutants.
The climate-change expert explains that surface inversion layers can form as low as 400 meters above the city, and can linger for upwards of a month as occurred early this year. The behaviour of air pollutants under such conditions becomes more irregular and the concentration more hazardous, especially for those living in high-rises.
Prof Thanawat warns that Thailand may have reached a tipping point. "There's no doubt our weather patterns are changing, and we've known this would occur due to climate change. While we can't be certain about specific events, we must accept that none of this is nature's fault. We should abandon our polluting ways because we can no longer count on nature to blow it [pollutants] all somewhere else."
NO COMMAND, NO CONTROL
About 90% of the dangerous particles in the air in and around Bangkok are generated by vehicle exhaust, biomass burning, factories and dust from construction sites. And as the pollution readings ratchet up, so do health-related economic costs.
"Estimates of damages associated with concentration of larger air particles PM10 in Bangkok are around 446 billion baht per year," explains Assoc Prof Witsanu Attavanich, from Kasetsart University's Faculty of Economics, in describing his own findings on the social and economic impacts of air pollution and their solutions.
"Information associated with PM2.5 is not yet available. But damages will certainly be higher than PM10 because they cause more severe health problems."
The Pollution Control Department (PCD) is well aware of these costs. It cites a study by Shi Y et al, that in South and Southeast Asia between 1999 and 2014, PM2.5 is believed to have caused around 1.4 million premature deaths, and recommends urgent and strict controls on emissions. Yet the agency has made no such moves, Dr Witsanu says.
"We can't seem to market clean air. Therefore, there's no value and people don't see the true costs they have to pay. There must be a study to show that it is worth it for the government to invest to resolve the pollution crisis. However, the government first has to realise that we're facing an air pollution crisis that demands this research," says Prof Witsanu.
This is a complex problem requiring an integrated, multi-layered approach to achieve any real improvements, he says. But the government is stuck in an ineffective "command-and-control" mentality that only gives the appearance of a response by focusing on weak pollution control regulations. Such a narrow approach has proven ineffective because they lack enforcement mechanisms.
For example, vehicles emitting dangerous black exhaust remain in widespread use. Moreover, despite anti-burning regulations, 66% of the sugarcane that entered mills this year was burned prior to harvesting.
Prof Witsanu argues that economic incentives, which will compel the public to change its behaviour, must be put in place and the pollution tackled at the root. He advocates taxing vehicles directly for the harm they cause and creating new markets for agricultural waste and biomass that do not involve burning.
To accomplish this, however, would require a seismic shift in policy making, says Assoc Prof Niramol Suthamkit, director of Pro-Green Centre, Thammasat University.
"Air pollution from vehicles, infrastructure construction and property development are the result of urban and economic growth priorities," she says. There is little space in policy-making that prioritises the environment for society's overall quality of life, she adds.
Despite Bangkok's pollution and traffic challenges, the number of registered vehicles has more than doubled in the past decade to 10.5 million vehicles. No effort has been made to reduce these numbers. Instead, transportation plans call for another 1,047 kilometres of new roads and expressways over the next decade, Prof Niramol adds.
"Conflict of interest is the key problem within government agencies," says Supat Wangwongwattana, former director general of PCD and currently a lecturer at Faculty of Public Health at Thammasat University. "For example, the mission of the Industry Ministry is to promote more industry, yet at the same time, it is responsible for industrial pollution control. How can it balance between the two?"
Mr Supat argues that such internal conflicts result from the evolution of a government bureaucracy intent on facilitating economic development of growing concerns for environmental protection. Efforts to establish an independent body with full authority to take charge of environmental issues have never gained much traction.
Though supportive, Mr Supat concedes that from his experience as PCD chief, he cannot envision how such a body can ever be welcomed within the bureaucracy. A more palatable, but less effective, step might be to seek avenues to break-up obvious conflicts. Possibly the Pollution Control Department could oversee the environmental aspects of factory licensing and operations he suggests, removing the Industry Ministry from the loop. "Still," he says, "it depends on the government's political will."
"Nationwide, there has been an alarming level of PM2.5 in the air for a long time," observes Chol Bunnag, director of SDG Move Thailand and lecturer with the Faculty of Economics at Thammasat University. "Chiang Mai in particular has been at a crisis level for a decade now. Air pollution only became an issue for the government when Bangkok's worsening air quality stirred-up significant public discontent this year. Bangkok has always been the priority, the centre of authority and development, leaving other parts of the country out in the cold."
Emergency declarations were never made by the central government regarding Chiang Mai's air quality for fear that it would reflect negatively on the country's tourism image, Mr Chol says. Decentralisation of decision-making and authority could encourage regional development policies to address more localised needs.
Moreover, a "silo-structure" within government agencies discourages officials to work cooperatively across agencies, focusing instead on their own priorities, he says. Nowhere is this constraint more clear, and the opportunities to overcome them more explicit, he adds, than Thailand's publicised commitment to meeting the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
To achieve these 17 goals, all of which have environmental components, officials with special expertise are required to work across disciplines and agency priorities, notes Chol.
Jinanggoon Rojananan, senior adviser for Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council, claims the 20-Year National Strategic Plan (2018-2037) and the 12th National Economic and Social Development Plan are both in line with SDG guidelines.
Both plans stress the need to transition to a more integrated administrative structure, working process and budgeting.
They also promote the introduction of a more bottom-up decision-making process, she says, "to move the country forward in a more balanced way".
Chol appreciates these efforts, though he feels that they are superficial and moving too slowly to allow the government to get a handle on the rapidly deteriorating environmental quality besetting the country.
Reporting for this story was supported by Mekong Eye, a geo-journalism website under Internews' Earth Journalism Network.