BANGKOK (The Nation/Asia News Network): As Chiang Mai residents choke under the world’s worst air pollution, PM Prayut Chan-O-Cha has promised action on smog but admitted efforts to prevent burning fields that feed it had failed.
Chiang Mai has topped the air-pollution rankings for world cities over the past week, according to Swiss air quality company IQAir.
Seasonal smog levels are soaring across northern Thailand, with Chiang Rai locals suffering levels of PM2.5 – dangerous fine-dust particles associated with lung and problems – 11 times higher than the national safe limit. Hospitals across the North are also reporting high numbers of patients seeking treatment for respiratory conditions.
On Wednesday, Prayut sought to calm growing public anger over the pollution crisis by reassuring people that the issue is still being handled as a national agenda. He said the government has set no-burning timeframes in each province to prevent farmers torching their fields at the same time.
Satellite images show northern Thailand and neighbouring Myanmar and Laos lit up with thousands of hotspot fires as farmers clear their fields.
“Our neighbours are facing the same problem. People are not cooperating in reducing the burning of crops. Officials need to make them understand the bigger picture of air pollution issue,” said Prayut, without elaborating on how this could happen.
Thai farmers face penalties including fines for lighting fires outside the burning timeframe but enforcement in rural areas is lax.
Meanwhile, environmental campaigners say much of the burning is done by farmers contracted by agri-business conglomerates that operate in Thailand and over the border.
For small farms, burning is also the cheapest way of clearing fields.
Prayut said emissions from traffic were also feeding the PM2.5 problem, adding the government was working to reduce fossil-fuel vehicles and stimulate adoption of electric vehicles.
“We are aiming for at least 30% of vehicles on Thai roads to be electric by 2030,” he said.
The PM said he has tasked governors of high-traffic provinces, including Bangkok, to consider measures to reduce vehicle emissions such as allowing people to work from home.
Images from the Suomi satellite showed 2,870 hotspots burning across Thailand on Wednesday, according to the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency.
Of these, 1,479 were in protected forests, 1,080 in national forests, and 100 in agricultural areas.
The density of fires was even worse in Myanmar and Laos, however.
The satellite detected 3,964 hotspots in Myanmar and 2,139 in Laos. Far fewer were detected in Vietnam (205) and Malaysia (53) on Wednesday.
Locals protesting in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai earlier this week pleaded for cooperative action among Asean member states to combat the seasonal agri-burning.
Chiang Mai was the most polluted city in the world again on Thursday, according to AQIAir, which warned PM2.5 levels were 45.7 times higher than World Health Organisation’s standard for clean air.