The campaign launched this week calling for the people affected by PM2.5 to come out and petition the Administrative Court against the government tomorrow. Courtesy of EnLaw

EDITORIAL: Right to Clean Air is a Universal Human Right

The government has taken too little and too late action against the intensifying PM2.5 haze problem in the North and it’s now been put to the test whether or not it can recognise and embrace the idea that the right to clean air is actually a fundamental human right, which is widely accepted among the international community

If the current records of hotspots both inside and outside the country can suggest anything critical, it would be that their numbers are skyrocketing.

As of April 7, the accumulative number of hotspots in Thailand was recorded at 134,945, almost ten times higher than the number of incidents recorded in 2018, which stood at 14,565 (Jan-May). Of these, over half or 84,846, were the hotspots that occurred in the Northern region, and over 95% of them happened in the forest areas. While in 2018, over half of the hotspots recorded or around 5,085 had happened in the Northeast, with over 50% of them detected in agricultural areas.

At the same time, the number of hotspots in neighbouring countries is no less ascending. According to the record by the Pollution Control Department (PCD), hotspots in the Mekong region were recorded at 727,822 already, or around seven times higher than the number of 101,320 incidents reported in Jan-May 2018 (Myanmar 276,256/41,204, Laos 180,235/27,417, Cambodia 104,210/23,106, and Vietnam 32,146/9,593).

The sharp increase in hotspots both inside and outside the country has prompted the Northern region to have been choked with PM2.5 haze for over two months since late January, with the average 24-hour concentration crossing the hazardous level defined by the government at 100 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m³) for a number of days. On some days, the northern residents have to put up with the haze with a concentration that was over five times beyond the hazardous level. The highest concentration level of the fine dust was recorded on March 27 at 537 µg/m³, which occurred in Chiang Rai’s border district of Mae Sai.

PM2.5 is critical to public health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the major components of PM are sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water. While particles with a diameter of 10 microns or less can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs, the even more health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, as they can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer, according to the WHO.

The situation prompted leading medical organisations to issue a warning to the public on March 10, recommending residents in the haze-shrouded areas to duck indoors if an hourly concentration was beyond 100 µg/m³. By the end of March, the Public Health Ministry estimated that over two million people have their health affected by the haze with mild to severe symptoms as well as the most troubling respiratory effects already. 

Still, no leaders paid serious attention to the problem. It was not until March 15 that the National Environment Board (NEB), chaired by Deputy PM Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, convened to address the problem as instructed in the country’s national action plan. The plan, which was first formulated and endorsed in late 2019 using the PCD records, states that if the concentration level of the fine dust exceeds the hazardous level (crisis) “consecutively”, the NEB must call for an urgent meeting to come up with proposals and propose them to the Prime Minister to issue an order to tackle the problem at its sources as such.

The NEB at the March 15 meeting came up with immediate measures including the closure of the forest areas prone to forest fires and stringent law enforcement against violators as well as zero burning outdoors, while its long-term efforts included more focus on the pollution at its sources and budgets and planning.

And it was not until Friday that the Prime Minister, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, chaired an urgent trilateral meeting through video conference with Lao Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone and Myanmar leader Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing in an attempt to address the transboundary haze crisis together. He proposed “The Clear Sky Strategy”, under which the Chiang Rai Plan of Action adopted by five countries in the Mekong Subregion in 2017 to address the transboundary haze crisis must be in the focus, alongside other regional measures including the 42nd Asean Summit in Indonesia. 

These efforts, however, have just come too little and too late in the eyes of health and pollution experts, and they can no longer stand the apparently sluggish state efforts to address and tackle the PM2.5 haze problem for the people. They have called on people in the haze-shrouded areas to come out and petition the Administrative Court together against the Prime Minister and concerned agencies, and tomorrow they will file the petition.

We would not have come to this point if we had paid a little more attention to people’s plight and their problems, trying in every way and every means to show that we as a leader care and work for them. Things would have been much different, despite the same results or outcomes.

After all, this will be a critical test for the country; whether or not the right to a good environment and clean air, which is fundamental and endorsed by the United Nations as a Universal Human Right, will be recognised and embraced in this country.

So, count down and no hard feelings.

As Dr. Rungsrit Kanjanavanit, a cardiologist at the Faculty of Medicine of Chiang Mai University, one of the leading figures who will file the petition tomorrow said in his FB post; “It’s a normal approach for fully democratic people to do so (filing a court petition) to protect their rights.”

“Winning or not doesn’t more matter than creating a ripple for change in the society,” he added.