Is North Thailand a health hazard?

Early morning near Chiang Mai - November
Early morning near Chiang Mai – November

The beautiful, but polluted, North of Thailand

Arguably the most beautiful and interesting part of the Country, Northern Thailand is a potential health hazard between the months of February and April. I would strongly advise anyone contemplating a visit to avoid these months unless you want to spend your time in an air-conditioned room. I am writing this on 22nd March 2014, 30 kilometres north of Chiang Mai where the temperature between midday and 4pm averages 36°c. The Air Pollution Index (API) shows 78 in Bangkok, a major city which is always polluted and 30 in Phuket which is a tropical island washed by constant rains and breeze. In the North, Chiang Mai shows 164 and Mae Hong Son a massive 185. On Friday morning (21st March) flights from Bangkok could not land at Chiang Mai and had to return and wait until the afternoon for clearance.

 Below 50 is considered good air while anything over 100 is unhealthy and when you get to levels over 200 as the mega-cities of China do consistently you are in living in seriously health hazardous conditions. China suffers the world’s worst pollution due to over reliance on coal as a source of energy and burns roughly half of the world’s resources. But fortunately Thailand does not have that problem.

So what are the reasons for such high and unacceptable levels of pollution in a farming area that has no heavy industry and no major cities?

Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai only have populations of between 2 and 3 million. Pollution is mainly caused by subsistence farmers employing outdated ‘slash and burn’ techniques used for hundreds of years to clear forest and scrub land and grow crops. The government is well aware of the dangers to health but is failing the people miserably. Together with the many ‘Forest Fire Control Centres’, throughout the provinces, the authorities are once again proving to be either unwilling or powerless to prevent the recklessness of ignorant rural people. It would seem that most have little or no concern for their own or others health and safety.  Add to this home fires for cooking (cheaper than gas or electricity), an inordinate amount of household refuse burning, including toxic materials such as plastic, and you have a potent cocktail posing considerable risks to the people’s health.  But that is not all; we have seen no rain for nearly four months now and are unlikely to get any for another two. There is very little wind in this part of the world so there is a considerable amount of dust as well and there is no way the pollution will be cleared until the monsoon starts. Farmers lack of resources to employ more modern methods of farming is no excuse for ignorance or a reason to damage the nation’s health. There are, of course, many educated people who do understand the danger. But in the main they are too weak-knee’d to challenge those villagers who continue to burn regardless of everyone’s safety. Instead they choose to risk their health rather than  complain and upset a neighbour who cares not a jot.

This is what the Chiang Mai province looks like when you can see it.

One of the main attractions for anyone visiting or living in, for that matter, Northern Thailand is the wonderful scenery. Mountains, hills, forests, rivers and waterfalls. How disappointing then, to travel thousands of kilometres, to find when you arrive that the landscape is invisible. Your expensive DSLR camera, technically brilliant as it may be, cannot see through smog so you can’t bring any lovely photos home. However, the photographer of this video has done an excellent job despite the fact that he obviously shot it at the worst possible time of year (probably February).

On a positive note

The farmers in my village of Huai Kaew have been very busy over the past month. The potato harvest is over, the fields ploughed and flooded and the rice is all but planted. The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye and in full bloom together with the Lam Yai they make a beautiful sight and the scent is gorgeous. (I cheated by putting blue sky in this picture because I was fed up with the smog.)


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