Asia Thinkers investigates and discusses Thailand’s increasing air pollution and the threat to residents’ health and the tourist industry emerging from the Covid19 epidemic. The issue is compounded by transboundary haze pollution from Myanmar and Vietnam. Can lessons be learnt from Asian countries managing similar air pollution such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore?
Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, and Chiang Mai, the second largest city in the north, are routinely named among the world’s most polluted cities. Pollution is at its worst from January to April with March consistently being the worst month when farmers increase slash-and-burn harvesting. Pollution in Thailand has increased over the years due to population pressure and urbanization being the top sources. According to estimates from Thailand’s “Pollution Control Department” the main polluters are transportation, electricity generation, manufacturing and open burning, especially the pre-harvesting of sugarcane and grains.
The impact on health and tourism
Since January this year, Bangkok and Chiang Mai have been choking on the worst pollution so far seen in the country. Concerns are being raised about the impact on health and tourism. Respiratory problems are recorded as on the rise in Thailand, particularly among the elderly and young children. Thousands of people are being hospitalised as the country’s air quality continues to worsen. Air pollution in Bangkok and Chiang Mai has severe health consequences for the residents. High levels of Nitrogen Dioxide and Sulphur Dioxide are causing increasing cases of respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases and even cancer.
According to medical specialists, approximately 2.4 million people in Thailand have needed medical care for air pollution-related ailments since the beginning of 2023. The World Health Organization (WHO) commented that on average each year more than 33,000 deaths in Thailand can be attributed to air pollution.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second most visited city, this year a thick smog carrying harmful particles has greeted tourists arriving at Chiang Mai airport, with pictures of the experience spread across social media. In March the Governor called for people to stay at home to prevent health issues, tourists cancelled their visit in large numbers according to tour operators who claim the Chinese tourist market is significantly affected.
Asia Thinkers spoke to a Hong Kong traveller who commented that “after seeing photos of the smog in Chang Mai on Facebook and experiencing breathing problems in Bangkok, he decided that instead of going to Chang Mai he would fly to Koh Samui where the air is much cleaner, although there are still some bad smog days.” The rising pollution levels are proving to be a huge burden on an economy that is heavily dependent on tourism and only recently recovering from the Covid19 epidemic.
Government efforts to control pollution
The Thai Government has previously introduced measures such as promoting the use of public transport, enforcing emission standards for vehicles and cracking down on the illegal burning of waste. These measures have not been enough to tackle the issue effectively and have not received public support to have a lasting effect.
In 2019 the government focused on trying to control open burning especially the pre-harvesting of Sugarcane. A retired professor of Business studies at Chiang Mai University commented to Asia Thinkers that “in Chiang Mai during the haze period, half the smog comes from the burning of agricultural biomass. Harvest season falls during the dry season when neither wind nor rain can remove the haze and these fires are responsible for 90% of pollution which is different to central Thailand and Bangkok where burning contributes to smog. The majority is caused by population expansion such as vehicles and electricity generation”.
The government had proposed a three-year programme to reduce the open burning, but this has been resisted by both the sugar industry and agricultural companies that maintain political influence. This has resulted in the programme stalling and no further action taken.
Photo: Chiang Mai smog – Aljazeera
Climate experts have commented that a significant challenge to solving the pollution problem is the lack of public awareness and participation. Many residents are not aware of the health risks associated with air pollution and do not take the necessary precautions to protect themselves.
The lack of government action or public response to pollution has seen the emergence of organisations such as Thailand Clean Air Network (or Thailand CAN), a citizen-driven volunteer group that supports policy solutions to the air pollution crisis in Thailand. Thailand CAN has developed the first citizen-led Clean Air Bill and submitted it to the Thai Parliament for discussion. In an interview by Dominik Sipinski published in April 2023. Weenarin Lulitanonda, a co-founder of the Thailand Clean Air Network commented that “the air people are breathing in northern Thailand is cutting their life short by three, four years. It causes cancers and mental health issues, and almost no one is taking up the cause, there is so much passivity. The problem is very much tied to the big agricultural industry, which the government is not even trying to touch.” She stressed, however, that the root cause lies within Thailand, even if some burning happens abroad. The real problem, she continues to argue, is contract farming. Smallholder farmers, who dominate in Thailand, enter contracts with large companies, which sell them seeds and fertilisers, and commit to buying the crops. This pressures the farmers to maximise output. With no capital to invest in modern harvesters, field burning is the easiest method to increase productivity.
(SOURCE: AL JAZEERA)
Other groups have emerged and are taking proactive steps towards addressing the issue instead of just waiting for the government to act. In Chiang Mai the private sector, academia, NGOs and community leaders have come together to form the “Chiang Mai Breathe Council”, an independent body focusing on improving Chiang Mai’s air quality and preventing air pollution. The aim is to apply pressure on the government to fund clean air initiatives and make changes in law and create a social movement to raise awareness and educate people about the impact of smog on their health. The focus is on reducing smoke from all sources, from vehicles, factories, construction, and garden burning to agricultural and forest fires. Several NGOs are also working with farmers on alternative farming methods. The “Warm Heart Foundation” in Chiang Mai, for example, trains farmers in the application of biochar — super charcoal made from biomass which increases productivity and works with farmers to stop open-field crop waste burning.
In March 2022, a group of NGOs, including Greenpeace Thailand and the Environmental Law Foundation, began pursuing a lawsuit against the government for failure to provide citizens with their right to clean air.
In essence arguing that there is no clear enforcement of environmental policies due to an insufficient number of governmental organizations involved in air pollution mitigation, due to the minimal allocation of budget for air quality policies.
Haze Pollution in South East Asia
Part of the smog problem especially in Northern Thailand can be attributed to cross-border haze which originates in Myanmar and Laos and is a result of the same farming practices affecting Chang Mai. Climate activists commented that between a third and half of the smog, depending on the region, originates from the same agricultural sources in neighbouring countries. However, Thailand isn’t the only country in South East Asia whose pollution is affected by poor farming practices. Since official records started in 1972 every year, farming-related smog has plagued Asia. The 1997 Southeast Asian haze, caused by major forest fires in Indonesia, is thought to be the most severe on record stretching as far as Sri Lanka. Again in 2015, Southeast Asian haze was an air pollution crisis affecting several countries in Southeast Asia, including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines.
The issue is not new but has been persistent. For years, fires in Sumatra have caused the rest of Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia to choke under the smog. It stems from Indonesia’s annual burning of land for the production of pulp, paper, and palm oil – industries that have devastated the Indonesian forests and peatlands for years.
Since the 2015 smog crisis, Indonesian President Jokowi Widodo has implemented policies aimed at addressing the root causes of fires, such as deforestation and poor management of peatlands. This included creating a peatland restoration agency, fining companies and individuals responsible for fires, extending a deforestation moratorium and strengthening local enforcement and firefighting capabilities.
There’s early evidence that these steps are making a difference. The number of hot spots — areas with significantly higher temperatures than neighbouring areas — is decreasing dramatically. According to a new “Haze Outlook report” Indonesia has made ‘substantial progress’ in preventing and suppressing forest fires amid the pandemic.
“The government has become much more serious on the fires and haze issue since 2015,” says Arief Wijaya, senior forests and Climate Manager at World Resource Institute Indonesia (WRI is an independent research non-profit organisation advising the Indonesian government on climate change). Areif noted how authorities now pursue “the actors, businesses and local people who are responsible for setting fires for land clearing.” Indonesian society has also been engaged in the fight against pollution. WRI Indonesia launched the Indonesian Peat Prize competition in 2017, where teams compete to come up with solutions to cheaply and effectively map peatlands across the country. The winner in 2018 had proposed an innovative LIDAR — a laser-light-based surveillance technique — and satellite-based method, which is now being adopted by the national peatland mapping effort.
Other tropical countries are recognizing Indonesia’s approach. The Indonesian government launched an International Tropical Peatland Centre in collaboration with global experts and several foreign countries, including Peru and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The centre aims to provide support and share Indonesia’s progress as a model for tropical countries in South America and Africa dealing with increasing deforestation. Support has also come from Singapore and Malaysia. Since 2015 Singapore has been taking legal action against companies involved in agricultural burning practices in Sumatra. Legal action could lead to massive fines against Indonesian companies blamed for farm and plantation fires and responsible for unhealthy levels of air pollution in the city-state. At the 2022 meeting in Bali, ASEAN environment ministers agreed that digital maps showing who owns each bit of land should be shared among the ASEAN governments and agreed “to hold plantation companies and land owners responsible” for illegal fires.
Firefighters work to extinguish a peatland fire in Indonesia’s South Sumatra province last month. Photo: Xinhua