Millions Seek Treatment in Thailand as Air Pollution Crisis Deepens
Apr 28 2023
Currently, Thailand is confronting deep flaws in its handling of air pollution as huge numbers flock to hospitals seeking treatment for health issues related to toxic smog – and truly huge numbers. Since the start of 2023, authorities have recorded around 2.4 million people suffering from smog-related ailments, like respiratory difficulties, dermatitis, eye irritation, and sore throats.
Air pollution has been a defining feature of life in Thailand for quite some time, making for some harrowing stories. For instance, from northern Thailand, Thommamoon Khowasat told the BBC about the frustration of being a father to a four-year-old daughter in such conditions, repeatedly and painstakingly explaining that the yellow haze outside isn’t fun and exciting but deeply hazardous; "She believes it's natural fog. But the reality is: it’s a toxic fog." Indeed, other than the elderly, the most vulnerable to pollutants in the air are young children. A specialist at Mae Chan Hospital in one of the region’s most polluted urban centres, Chiang Rai, Dr. Veera Isarathanan informed the BBC of her concern: “Infants cannot wear face masks,” she said, “and even with air purifiers, the nursery's atmosphere can pose a risk.”
In Chiang Rai, a city whose air ranks amongst the most polluted globally, local residents have resorted to doing the monitoring themselves out of desperation, taking daily readings of different pollutants in the air. Ever-declining air quality emerged as one of the most salient issues in this year’s elections as the government were accused of failing to do enough to tackle the problem. Parts of Thailand were rocked by protests, citizens taking to the streets to demand a response from local authorities. One protest, of around 200 people, took place in Chiang Rai, directly outside the offices of the local government in Mae Sai. One protestor, Somyot Nittayaroj, told the international press: "Mae Sai residents currently live in anguish. Both young and old endure hardship." So far, the government’s advice has been to simply encourage people to wear N95 masks, to close windows and doors, limit outdoor exposure, and exercise indoors. Many, of course, can’t help but ignore such precautions.
So, why is Thailand’s air quality so poor? Well, lots of it comes from rampant agricultural and forest fires in Thailand and other nations in the region, particularly Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. For many poor farmers, burning their land is often the simplest and cheapest way of clearing it. New laws have been passed to make liable those responsible for both agricultural and forest fires, but law enforcement have been less than eager to use these new powers, to say the least. During Thailand’s dry season, then, which normally lasts from November to March, air quality across the country takes a nosedive. In Chiang Rai, smog lies so densely over the city during these months that the city itself transforms out of all recognition and locals are unable to see the region’s famous mountain range which appears strikingly close in clearer air. Fire trucks spray water to shift the clinging dust to little effect, and near-blindness reigns for days on end.
Like almost all other countries, Thailand’s air suffers as a result of industrial activities and mass transportation, too, particularly cars, buses, and motorbikes. With an abundance of low-quality diesel engines and huge volumes of vehicles on the nation’s roads, it’s no wonder that Thailand has a problem in this area. Critics have called for more investment in more and greener public transportation as one aspect of a solution, but once again, the Thai administration hasn’t been forthcoming.
For at least a little while longer, it seems, air pollution will stay on the list of Thailand’s problems, corrupting the lives of millions, especially in the country's northernmost reaches. But the government is under rising pressure from both national and international groups to do more, increasing the likelihood that real solutions will be put forward. It’s not just a Thai problem, of course, most of South Asia are struggling through similar crises and contributing to each other’s woes. Whatever the fix, then, regional co-operation will be a necessity.
Asian Environmental Technology 27.2 - April/May 2023
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