Stop Complaining and Do Something About It!
The smoky season will soon blanket Chiang Mai, causing serious health issues for residents and visitors. As we all know, the annual smoke that plagues Chiang Mai comes from several sources; forest fires are a major source, along with the smoke from farmers burning their crop residue in open fields.
Dr. Michael Shafer, Director of the Warm Heart Environmental Biochar Project located in Phrao, who has been working to find long term solutions to this annual crisis stated, “We do agree that forest fires are a major source of smoke, but this is the government’s responsibility to manage. Greenpeace has offered advice on positive steps that the government can take to help control wild fires. Data from Thai university research proves that most forest fires occur where farms are located within the forests. Others occur where local government officials set fires to clear roadsides of brush.”
According to Dr. Shafer, “Farmers need a way to remove their crop waste. What we can offer them is an alternative to open field burning, which is beneficial to reducing the local smoke problem.” The Biochar Project provides free training on how to build and use a pyrolysis oven, a smoke free burning process that creates a very useful product, biochar.
“Switching to a biochar method of removing crop residue will not solve the smoke problem overnight, but is a concrete step towards addressing the issue” he added.
Warm Heart’s “Stop the Smoke” Campaign
Stop the Smoke! is a ‘consciousness raising’ campaign to show people that they can do something real to stop the smoke. It shows that it is not true that ‘there is nothing that can be done.’
“We do not have to sit idly by, year after year, while people talk about what should be done, could be done. Stop the Smoke! kicks off a citizens’ action campaign to eliminate the smoke from crop waste burning.”
Chiang Mai’s Smoke Levels Are Dangerous
Greenpeace’s city rankings for the 2016 burning season places Chiang Mai in 1st place of the five top worst cities in Thailand. Over the past three years we have risen from 4th place, to 3rd place, now 1st. Based on the Greenpeace report, air pollution is responsible for cutting short 50,000 lives every year.
According to the World Bank, Thailand will spend US$6.5 billion (277,500,000,000 baht) on smoke-related illnesses. Those who do not die or end up in the hospital will suffer from sore throats, runny noses, red eyes, headaches — and most likely die prematurely. Grim facts.
Getting the Ball Rolling
A pilot project in Mae Chaem District, partially funded through a grant from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, is currently underway.
A team of six student interns from Rajabhat University trained by Warm Heart to build biochar ovens are helping corn farmers turn their crop waste into biochar, which Warm Heart then buys. As Shafer says, “The only way to stop people from burning crop waste is to make it profitable for them to make the change.”
But as he points out, this is a pilot project. “Stop the Smoke’s 1,000,000 baht will purchase just 308 tons of biochar. To put this in perspective,” Shafer notes, “this will eliminate 1,540 tons of corn waste — 1.6% of the corn waste in Mae Chaem District alone, which is only one of many major sources of corn waste smoke in the North. Still, we are buying smoke out of the air and in return we are getting the raw biochar they are producing.”
The Biochar Impact
On a local and regional level, reducing the smoke will help create a healthier environment for all. The benefits of biochar go much broader, in fact globally, because making biochar actually helps to cool the planet.
• Making biochar removes three tons CO2 from the atmosphere for every ton produced;
• Biochar is an inert form of carbon; when buried in the soil it sequesters carbon at the rate of three tons of CO2 per ton forever; and
• Around the world, field burning creates 330,000 gigatons of black carbon annually — the 2nd biggest contributor to global warming — and huge quantities of methane and NOx, greenhouse gases 25 and 298 times respectively more warming than CO2, all of which are eliminated by making biochar.
The Many Benefits of Biochar
Enriching soil by adding biochar is an inexpensive and highly effective way for farmers to improve their soil and increase their yields. They will no longer have to pay for chemical fertilisers, saving money, and protecting their soil and the environment from the damaging effects of agrochemicals at the same time.
Enriching soil with biochar will also help eliminate the pesticide poisoning from which many farmers and agricultural labourers currently suffer (Blood tests of 2,000 people in North Thailand reveal that 100% of rural residents are at extreme risk — the highest risk level — from pesticide poisoning).
Biochar locks up contaminants so that they cannot leach into the water or be picked up by plants.
The large-scale use of biochar in the soil can reduce the bioavailability of poisons, decontaminate water flows, and remove toxins from the food chain.
By the Numbers
Does burning crop waste contribute to the haze problem in the North?
• Total amount: 4,056,000 tons
• Total burned: 2,028,000 tons
• Smoke: 12,695 tons PM2.5
• Total amount: 7,000,000 tons
A City Full of Possibilities
The tourist industry in Chiang Mai is seriously affected by the haze season, losing an estimated two billion baht a month.
Crop waste from farmers is only one source that can benefit from biochar technology. This process can be used anywhere there is a source of biomass (i.e. tree clippings, dead leaves, yard clippings, dead trees) that needs disposing of, and there is plenty in the city.
137 Pillars House, a local five star luxury hotel in Chiang Mai, needed a solution to dispose of their biomass waste. They contacted Warm Heart which sent a team to train the staff of the hotel to make biochar.
Utilising a biochar oven, they are now able to eliminate their biomass waste in an environmental friendly way, and benefit from the biochar they produce to fertilise their expansive gardens, saving money on chemical fertilisers, water and disposal.
Programmes like the 137 Pillars House project will benefit the local community and guests who visit during the smoky season. There are many resorts and businesses that would benefit from a similar system and Warm Heart offers free training to any interested parties in the north.
Job Creation and Economic Stimulus
As biochar proves itself, Warm Heart hopes to see a strong market established. “Once it becomes clear that making and using biochar has so many valuable attributes,” comments Shafer, “we hope to see government and entrepreneurial interest grow.”
For government, biochar production provides a realistic, if partial, solution for the perennial, costly public health problems caused by field burning.
For entrepreneurs, making and brokering biochar, manufacturing biochar making machines, producing biochar soil amendments and innovating new technologies that embody this technology (for example, in-field run-off water filters) offers great business opportunities and will create jobs in job-poor rural areas.
So Stop Complaining and Do Something About It!
You can do something by contributing to the Stop the Smoke! campaign to help raise the money to buy more smoke out of the air. Every baht raised will go into a farmer’s pocket as an incentive to make biochar.
Warm Heart will turn the biochar into an enriched soil fertiliser, sell at fair market prices, and reinvest the profits back into buying more biochar from more farmers.
“This is just the start,” says Shafer, “there is no way such an approach can solve a problem of this scale.This is an industrial-scale problem and requires an industrial-scale solution: small biomass power plants.” a 1-megawatt biomass power plant would employ 75 people, clean burn 17,000 tons of crop waste a year bought from local farmers for 4,250,000 baht.
Based on By the Numbers (see box), at 17,000 tons of biomass per megawatt, 50% of crop waste from just these three sources will fuel 444 1 MW biomass power plants in the North. Collectively, these plants would remove 47,258 tons of PM2.5 from the air annually, employ 33,000 people and put 1,887,000,000 baht in new income into farmers’ pockets.
Five Year Plan
Warm Heart is working on a five year plan not only to reduce the smoke in Chiang Mai, but to help spread the biochar pollution solution across Asia.
During the month of February, for example, a group from Best Foods in Malaysia will be attending a training session at Warm Heart on setting up their own biochar system. Warm Heart will continue to add new training sessions for locals and for their Asian partners who also want to see an end to the smoke.
Until the Smoke Clears
Pay attention to the air quality and base your activities on protecting your own and your family’s health. Children and the elderly are often more susceptible to problems from the poor air quality.
Wear a mask when necessary. You need to pay attention to two types of particles: PM10, which will enter your lungs like cigarette smoke, and the much smaller PM2.5, which will pass through the walls of your lungs into your blood and travel all over your body. The only effective type of mask to use is an N-95. Regular paper surgical masks or cloth masks provide no protection at all against PM10 or PM2.5.
If you or someone in your family is particularly sensitive, keep windows and doors shut, use air conditioning if possible, and consider purchasing an indoor air purifier.
You can check in with Thailand’s Air Quality Index (AQI) for daily readings on air quality and health risks. But be advised that Thailand uses a different rating system than the rest of the world (what is ‘safe’ in Thailand is ‘unsafe’ elsewhere; and also that the Thai AQI reflects PM10 levels and not PM2.5 levels, the more dangerous particle.
Hope for the Future
Biochar is not the only tool we can use to fight climate change, it will take a concerted effort on many fronts to halt and reverse global warming.
But on a local scale, we can at least begin by cleaning our air, which will contribute to the solution. To donate to the Stop the Smoke! campaign visit Warm Heart’s Crowdrise page at www.crowdrise.com/stop-the-smoke.
For more information visit their website www.warmheartworldwide.org.
To schedule a training session, they can be reached at [email protected]
Together we can make a difference!
Citylife has also pledged one third of all monies raised from our upcoming Citylife Garden Fair to Warm Heart, hoping to do our little part in helping us all breathe easier. Please come to our fair on February 4th and become part of the solution. We aim to raise a minimum of 100,000 baht to Warm Heart,10% of their one million baht goal.