Greenpeace urges Thai government to declare emergency over toxic air
The government should declare air pollution an emergency so that its agencies can collaborate effectively to deal with the PM2.5 crisis, Greenpeace Thailand's air-pollution campaigner Alliya Moun-ob said on Thursday.
Alliya also warned that the fire that has engulfed Khao Laem forested mountain could spread to nearby communities in Nakhon Nayok province, make people sick, and destroy property.
Firefighters were still battling the blaze in the province in central Thailand on Thursday.
In the North, air-pollution levels were among the worst in the world on Thursday.
Chiang Mai’s air-quality index surged to 237 on Thursday, making its air the most polluted of any city in the world, according to the website IQAir.
Delhi was second, with an index of 194.
Alliya said that what is happening in upper Thailand is not new. It happened five years ago when the El Niño weather phenomenon exasperated the dry season, but there were few machines to detect PM2.5 then so people were not as aware of the crisis as they are now, she explained.
PM2.5 is fine dust less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. It can be fatal. Long-term exposure damages respiratory systems and blood vessels, Alliya said.
"People can develop eye and nasal irritation, bronchitis and coronary artery disease," Alliya said, adding that those who have asthma can develop severe symptoms from exposure to PM2.5.
She advised the government to open shelters for people, especially children and the elderly, to escape the pollutants, she said.
Root of the crisis
The root of the PM2.5 crisis is dry-season forest and agricultural fires in the North and across the borders with Myanmar and Laos, Alliya said.
"Most of the fires are started by people," she said, adding that they are particularly difficult to extinguish during the dry season.
Crop fields are burned to prepare for planting, while fires are set in forests to remove foliage so that forest products can be collected, she said.
The air-pollution crisis in northern Thailand will last until the harvest ends in May, Alliya said.
Thailand’s PM2.5 crisis is similar to India’s, and India has been unable to solve it, she said.
Singapore, however, can reduce air pollution in two to three years, she said, explaining that the government of the city state gives incentives to farmers to refrain from burning crops.
PM2.5 can also be produced by factories. In China, the government mandates that factories purify smoke before emitting it, Alliya said, adding that the mandates reduced PM2.5 by 30% in five years.
Alliya advised the government to use both short-term and long-term strategies to deal with air pollution.
"In the short term, the government should declare an emergency that relevant agencies can request funding to tackle the issue," she said.
In the long term, the government should launch a campaign to help people reduce air pollution, such as offering incentives for farmers to prevent them from burning their fields and promoting the import of maize, Alliya said.
"The cultivation of maize and expansion of the meat industry is a cause of PM2.5 in upper Thailand," she said.
She also called on the government to publicise data on chemicals and pollutants released into the air, water and soil, so that people can help reduce air pollution, pointing out that action by local residents has been critical in reducing forest fires.
The government can also streamline the workflow among agencies to make their responses to the crisis more effective, she said.
People who live in areas where the air quality is bad should avoid going outdoors, use air purifies inside, and wear N95 masks if they have to go outside, she said.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha recently put PM2.5 pollution on Asean’s agenda so that a regional response can be made as soon as possible.
It is a regional concern because smoke from fires does not stay within national boundaries.
Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai has written official letters to his Asean counterparts underscoring the necessity of dealing with the crisis, Prayut said.
"This problem has persisted for a long time," he said, adding that relevant agencies in Chiang Rai and Nakhon Nayok have been ordered to tackle it.
Thada Varoonchotikul, manager of Thailand Greenhouse Gas Management Organisation carbon market and innovation promotion, said there have been many arrests for crop burning.
The organisation is encouraging farmers to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from crops so that they can generate income from carbon credits.
"The government is looking into this issue, and considering offering incentives to farmers who reduce carbon dioxide emission from crops," Thada said.