As a parent sending my kids to school in Chiang Mai, I have seen first-hand the impacts of fires and smoke on air quality, the economy and public health. With little regulatory action over the past decade, and with Covid-19 now occupying much of the government’s attention, the air pollution problem is growing more severe. In March 2020, Chiang Mai achieved the unenviable position of having the world’s worst air quality.
Unfortunately, many people do not realize they are breathing toxic air. There is limited public awareness of what is at stake and much confusion about the causes of the problem and how to address them. Now, with the wildfire season almost upon us, I want to urge Chiang Mai citizens to join efforts to persuade politicians to take long-overdue action on this (literally) burning issue.
Forest fires are among the main sources of air pollution. As they fill the air with smoke and tiny particles called PM2.5, they pose immediate and long-term health risks—from asthma and bronchitis to lung cancer, heart attacks and strokes. There is also evidence linking exposure to wildfire smoke, and PM 2.5 more generally, to susceptibility to Covid-19. Beyond these health impacts, forest fires and the resulting air pollution also cause economic
damage. The damage to Chiang Mai’s tourism industry during March and April 2019 exceeded 6.3 billion Thai baht.
Before we can tackle these problems, we must understand their root causes. Many people will blame either the government or farmers for Chiang Mai’s annual fires. But this is too simplistic. Cultural, economic and political factors all contribute. In Northern Thailand, for example, this issue is linked to longstanding conflicts about land tenure, which has led some people to start fires deliberately.
It is not well documented, but these ‘arsonists’ are fighting back against uncertainties around the land reform process, which has been unclear, with laws sometimes conflicting with one another. In this context, and with community forestry areas and their management committees being blamed when fires are not controlled quickly, a deficit of trust among stakeholders contributes to the problem.
This is compounded by the government’s approach to managing fire risk. It tends to be reactive, heavy-handed and reliant on high-tech solutions, instead of supporting community-led approaches and traditional fire management techniques. Such techniques have enabled people to live for generations in highly flammable ecosystems and use fire as a land-management tool. We need to work with the government to build understanding about the complexity of forest fires and air pollution to develop a comprehensive long-term plan for addressing these issues.
Of course, it is not only forest fires that cause air pollution. Businesses and industries across Thailand also emit many pollutants. The government should move toward a sustainable economic model, which reflects the environmental and social costs of economic growth and therefore does not allow polluters to carry on unchecked. The Covid-19 pandemic, for all its horrors, provides an opportunity to fix this.
As countries stimulate their economies to recover from the pandemic, there are growing calls to “build back better”, seizing this opportunity to improve health, the environment and to limit climate change. Here in Thailand, in relation to air pollution specifically, that means boosting the green energy sector, improving forest fire management and ensuring that communities have secure tenure and use rights over forest resources, as well as rights to use fire as a management tool.
So what can CityLife readers do?
First, get informed. An organization I volunteer with, the Thailand Clean Air Network (TCAN) has joined forces with the Circular Design Lab to organize a ‘digital roadshow’ on air pollution, with online events twice a month until the end of the year. These events and the research and data published here are intended to inform the public and build support for clean air legislation in Thailand.
Second, get involved. TCAN and its partners are campaigning for action by proposing a range of sustainable solutions to air pollution—and they need your help. They have drafted a Clean Air Bill that can be submitted for parliamentary readings if at least 10,000 Thai citizens sign a petition to support it. If successful, this bill would give local administrative organisations the right to manage and deal with air pollution. It would create a clean air fund to support activities such as filing court cases, funding research and development, and taking other local action to promote clean air.
If adopted, the bill could encourage other countries in the region that are suffering from similar predicaments, and serve as a step towards the development of a regional Clean Air Act. The Transboundary Haze Agreement of ASEAN is a perfect example of what is possible.
Timing is important. We enter the wildfire season at the end of the year and it could coincide with the re-opening of the country to tourism, which has potential to contribute to a second wave of Covid-19 infections. With the coronavirus still circulating, we must improve air quality. By tackling pollution from forest fires and other sources, Thailand can also limit its contribution to climate change and build on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air?
About the author
David is Executive Director of RECOFTC. He believes that securing the land and resource rights of forest communities lays the essential foundation for peace, economic development and climate change mitigation and adaptation. David is a strong advocate for community forestry as an entry point for achieving the SDGs and for path-breaking private sector models that respect local rights and deliver lasting and tangible benefits for people and forests in the Asia Pacific region. David has a Ph.D. in environmental science, policy and management from the University of California at Berkeley.