Why is the Air Quality so bad in Thailand?

sun rising over forests in North Thailand
North Thailand – Chiang Mai Province at dawn

Because of the poor Chiang Mai air quality, I strongly advise anyone contemplating a visit to Northern Thailand to avoid going between January and May, unless you want to spend your time locked in an air-conditioned room. Why is the air quality so bad in Thailand, is a question that arises year after year. Despite bad Bangkok air quality and even worse Chiang Mai air pollution, it seems nothing is being done to improve the situation.

The North is a spectacular scenic part of Thailand. So, what makes North Thailand a serious health hazard that affects the whole Nation. And is the serious threat to people’s health being ignored?

The Chiang Mai air quality is so bad because of government failure to prevent farmers using ‘slash and burn’. The air quality index rises to 200 every year between January and May. When it goes over 200 it is a serious health hazard. This has been a recurring pattern for years with no signs of improvement.

Is the beautiful, but polluted, North of Thailand a health hazard?

On 22nd March 2014, 30 kilometres north of Chiang Mai the temperature between midday and 4 pm averaged 36°c. The Air Pollution Index (API) was 78 in Bangkok, a major city which is always polluted. In Phuket, which is a tropical island washed by constant rains and breeze, it was 30. In the North, Chiang Mai showed 164 and Mae Hong Son a massive 185. On the morning of 21st March, flights from Bangkok could not land at Chiang Mai. Planes had to return to Bangkok and wait until the afternoon for clearance.

This has been a recurring pattern for years and there are no signs of improvement.

why is the air quality so bad in thailand
Beautiful backdrop invisible through the smog

Below 50 is considered good air, while anything over 100 is a health hazard. When you get to levels over 200, you are in living in serious health hazardous conditions.

China has suffered the world’s worst pollution due to over-reliance on coal as a source of energy. It burns roughly half of the world’s resources, but is making efforts to improve air quality. Thailand does not have the same problem but seems unable to improve air quality.

Why is Thailand failing to stop Chiang Mai air pollution?

So what are the reasons for such high and unacceptable levels of pollution in the North of Thailand? A farming area that has no heavy industry, no major cities and shouldn’t represent a health hazard.

Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai each have a population of between 2 and 3 million. Air pollution in those provinces is caused by a combination of things. The main problems are;

  • Failure to prevent natural forest fires by Forest Fire Control centres.
  • Failure to prevent or control farmers using ‘slash and burn’ techniques. They have done it for hundreds of years to clear the forest and scrubland and grow crops.

Thailand’s bad air quality is a serious threat to people’s health

The government is well aware of the serious threat to health, so why is it failing the people miserably?

smog through trees health hazard
There are mountains invisible through the smog – Chiang Mai

There are many ‘Forest Fire Control Centres’, throughout the provinces. But it appears they are inadequate. There are laws limiting burning by farmers. But the authorities are 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.  Then add;

  • home fires for cooking (cheaper than gas or electricity).
  • an inordinate amount of household refuse burning, including toxic materials such as plastic.

Add everything together and you have a potent cocktail posing considerable risks to the people’s health.  But that is not all. Global warming is bringing longer periods of drought. No rain for four months will soon turn into six as the norm. There is very little wind in the North during the dry season. So there is a considerable amount of dust in the air. The air pollution cannot clear until the monsoon starts.

Lack of resources is no excuse for bad Chiang Mai air quality

Farmers lack of resources to use more modern methods of farming is no excuse for ignorance or a reason to damage the nation’s health. There are many educated people in positions of power who understand the danger. But if they are unwilling to challenge those who continue to burn, the problems will persist.

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

sunset over chiang mai province
Lemon Curd

One of the main attractions for anyone visiting or living in 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 the 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 March).

Bangkok air quality is bad

Bangkok air quality is bad because it is a major city of more than 10 million people and millions of motor vehicles. The North cannot offer that as an excuse for Chiang Mai air pollution.

I have written many times on the subject of atmospheric pollution. And I cannot contain my emotions when I am exposed to Thailand forest fires.

Chiang Mai villages at daybreak
Dramatic sunrise spotlights the distant mountains in Northern Thailand

I was managing a building project in Northern Thailand. And I stayed on the hill slopes of Huai Kaew village, North of Chiang Mai, bordering the forests. The climate between October and March is comfortable. Cool at night and early morning rising to 30c + in the day with no rain except the occasional shower.

But the farmers started burning in January again and didn’t stop for four months. They burn off the dry dead grasses and stubble to stimulate new growth when the monsoon starts. Cutting back excessive growth, clearing land and deforestation for fruit and vegetable farming creates a lot of organic waste.

Burning is illegal – but farmers don’t care

Excessive burning is illegal. But despite government warnings and penalties, slash and burn continues unabated. Locals may tell you ‘This is the way it has always been.’

Making a living takes preference over self-health and the health of others. The natural environment, habitat and animal life are not a consideration.

Ask if they think it is OK and you will probably get a shrug of the shoulders or, at best, ‘What can I do?’

In other words, total apathy.

Thailand and the Paris Climate Agreement

According to The Nation online news, Thailand has made impressive progress in reducing carbon emisssions and the Kingdom has taken great steps in its GHG-reduction goals.

You may be surprised, if you live in the North and see the Air Quality Index pushing the 200 barrier every year. While the period of poor Chiang Mai air quality rapidly extends to 6 months (December to June), when it used to be no more than 3 months.

Though Thailand has made impressive progress on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it still faces many challenges and the large implementation gap on the global scale remains to be solved. – The Nation, Thailand

Is there a solution

We all have a vested interest in finding a solution to the Global air pollution problem. But apart from helping to raise awareness in a small way, it seems we are powerless. If the authorities do not prosecute offenders, they will continue to offend and indirectly take innocent lives.

Even if it were a capital offence, would anyone care? I have my doubts. Thailand forest fires will burn and send the people of Northern Thailand to early graves.

And so the problem of Global warming continues on its merry way and we all suffer the consequences.

Some ignorant people may say ‘The Sun will eventually destroy us so what does it matter anyway.’

spectacular sunrise over North Thailand jungle

Northern Thailand at the break of day

Final Thoughts

I say look at my picture of the beautiful forest I see every day. It was burning as I wrote this poem induced by indignation and wine.

Why are you killing us?

Burning our land.

You have no rites of passage.

You have no right to stand

 

I watch in despair,

Each night as I laze.

Your fires that destroy us;

My lungs are ablaze.

 

The world is at war

With natures reaction,

To warming the globe

And our interaction.

 

The ice caps are melting.

The land is enveloped.

Species facing extinction.

No chance to develop.

 

I ask you again,

Please consider your brother.

Remember your learning and

How you treat your mother (Earth).

 

If you are interested in Thailand, you may like my 6 book Psychological Thriller Series, Alfie Goes to Thailand where you will find specific reference to Pollution in Chapter 35 of Book 6.

 
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