7 April 2019
(The Nation/ANN)-VISITING CHIANG MAI on Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha issued an order to end the haze crisis in the North within seven days, alongside declaring it part of the national agenda.
However, environmental groups like Greenpeace are saying that such an unprecedented short-term directive would do little to resolve what has become a persistent crisis requiring serious long-term measures.
Greenpeace country director Tara Buakamsri said the haze was not simply an environmental matter, but rather demands multidisciplinary knowledge to bring under control.
“About four years ago, judging from the number of hotspots there are now, we had the same old problem,” he said. “It’s the same story and we still haven’t effectively undertaken anything to address it.”
Tara was referring to the 10,133 large, open fires that the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISDA) observed in the North between January and May 2016.
Unlike the smog that enveloped Bangkok early in the year, the haze crisis in the North stems largely from spontaneous dry-season forest fires and other fires deliberately set to clear farmland.
GISDA has found that the number of hotspots in nine northern provinces including Chiang Mai has been climbing since early March. From the dozens initially seen, the number soared in mid-March, surpassing last year’s record for the same period.
As of this past Monday, the agency recorded 6,069 hotspots, compared to 4,722 in the same period last year.
The statistics echo those of the Royal Forestry Department, which recorded at least 5,909 hotspots in the North on Monday. Of these, 641 were burning outside forestlands, 772 were on farms abutting forests, and 4,496 were within forests.
Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Lampang, and Tak are worst off, accounting for 63 percent of the fires observed. Chiang Mai alone had 1,033.
Most observers believe the northern blazes are closely tied to the region’s traditional farming practices.
Haze Free Thailand, a project run by the Research University Network, has been studying the causes since last year, looking for possible solutions.
Most of the fires are set during the dry season and are the result of different land-use patterns, it has found.
Every January and into February, farmers set fires in their lowland fields to burn off scrub from the previous crop and prepare the soil for planting the next one.
Every February and into March, people who forage for mushrooms and other woodland edibles set fires within forests and clear undergrowth to set firebreaks, and sometimes trigger out-of-control forest fires.
Critical factors have now begun contributing to the haze problem, particularly clearing highland forests for mono-crop cultivation and rotational farming. Corn has become the most popular crop in the region as more farmers sign contracts with agro-giants.
Project researchers found that bans imposed on outdoor burning every March and April do not deter farmers from burning off the leftover stubble in their fields ahead of the rainy season.
During mid-March, Tara had also observed smoke pouring into the North from neighboring countries, again the product of cropland burning.
Based on GISDA’s MODIS satellite imagery from March 11 to 17, it had captured 728 hotspots in Laos, 446 in Myanmar and 103 in Cambodia.
During that same period, the level of PM2.5 – particulate matter 2.5 microns or less in diameter – topped the World Health Organisation safe standard (25 micrograms per cubic meter of air) across 80 percent of Thailand.
It was clear, Tara said, that transboundary pollution was significantly adding to Thailand’s woes.
The positive note to this year’s haze crisis, he said, is that more citizens are now aware of the health risks posed by the fine dust particles in the air, and their loud complaints have caught the government’s attention.
Tara pointed out that the problem has impacts beyond the health of humans and the environment, extending to the economy as well.
Environmentalists have also noticed more fires in forests this year than in community woods.
Tara blames this on soured relations between farmers and forestry officials, who are perceived to be heavy-handed following the military orders when farms are found to be overlapping on forests.
This conflict, he said, also needs to be doused.
As for the pollution crossing borders, Tara said Southeast Asian countries cannot place much hope in the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution because it’s had a scant practical effect, due to member-countries’ shared policy of not interfering in each other’s internal affairs.
Instead, he said, the solution could lie in other means. Singapore, for example, has a law against business operators elsewhere creating air pollution.
Other countries should consider similar legislation, Tara said.
“But that would require a strong government, one that dares face up to big business. And big business often has a heavy influence in politics today, so I’m not sure if we could enforce similar laws here,” he said.