The new fires broke on March 30 in Mae Hia area close to town in Chiang Mai province, the latest challenge that prompted Chiang Mai governor to declare the area along with some few adjacent Tambons the disaster zone this evening. Photo courtesy of DNP

Officials struggle to keep PM2.5 in the North at bay as hotspots within and outside the country multiply

So far, over two million people have been reported falling ill because of air pollution_with mild to severe symptoms, according to the Public Health Ministry

While the fires have been ravaging some forest areas in Nakhon Nayok province near the World Heritage Site of Khao Yai National Park in the Central region for a few days, experts agree that forest fires in the North are still posing a major challenge to the country as they have not been put under control despite the continued efforts to suppress them by concerned officials for nearly two months already.

Forest fires in the North this year were first reported to pose an impact on the residents there in late January and they became intensified in mid-February when they started to choke the region with PM2.5 haze to the level that “affects health” (91 micrograms per cu m onwards). Over 90% of the hotspots reported in the region have occurred in forest areas, prompting officials to conclude that forest fires are the prime cause of pollution.

The Pollution Control Department (PCD) projected in mid-February that the situation would last for one week or if worsening, it could continue until the end of the month. But what happened afterwards was the forest fires further intensified and have hardly allowed the residents to have some rest from the air pollution since.

As reported by the PCD chief, Dr. Pinsak Suraswadi, between Jan 1 to Feb 15, 18,988 hotspots had occurred in the region, or a 118% increase compared to the number of hotspots recorded during the same period of time last year (8,698). By the end of February, the accumulative number of hotspots in the North rose to 27,603. The accumulative number of hotspots outside the country, meanwhile, stood at 256,700, according to the department.

And when the region entered the month of March, it has hardly had a rest from the air pollution since. There was only a short break during March 15-22 when summer storms helped disperse the pollution, and afterwards, the air pollution started to climb up to a level far beyond the safety limit of 50 µg/m³, from one to ten times over 500 µg/m³. 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.

According to the department’s statistics as checked by Bangkok Tribune, the accumulative number of hotspots in the North as of March 30 stood at 66,070, and the accumulative number of hotspots in neighbouring countries stood at 606,967 (Myanmar 231,366, Lao PDR 136,274, Cambodia 100,769, Vietnam 27,438, and Thailand (the whole country) 111,120)

As of today, April 1, the air pollution seems to be slightly eased, with the dust concentration levels recorded between 44-343 µg/m³. The PCD has projected that the fine dust level would remain relatively high and should be under watch. Its projection is in line with the Public Health Ministry, which said the dust level that affects people’s health would continue through the month of Aprile and could be at ease in mid-May at the earliest.

So far, the ministry has set up its Emergency Operation Center (EOC) in eight northern provinces that have been encountering the most severe impact of the PM2.5 haze. The ministry has reported that over two million people have had their health affected by the haze since Jan 1, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe effects. The most notable symptoms are involved with respiratory systems, but long-term exposure could also cause chronic health problems including lung cancer, it warned.

Rangers and officers from the special task force of Suea Fai have fought the fires hard already since early March.
Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The hard fight

Since mid-Febrary, the National Parks Department (DNP), which is directly responsible for the protected forest area, has stepped up its measures to suppress the forest fires along with provincial authorities and volunteers. Special taskforces known as Suea Fai have been deployed to back up their fellows in the problematic areas, and as time goes by, measures have been heightened including the closure of the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries under its supervision.

So far, up to 101 protected areas nationwide have been declared closed. The department suspects that the forest fires are started by people who want to go into the forests to collect forest products and wildlife. Other experts, however, said the causes of forest fires are varied, including mismanagement of the pre-seasonal fire management.

As the situation became worsened, the National Environment Board, chaired by Deputy PM Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, called for its first meeting to address the situation in mid-March amid growing criticism against the government’s sluggish action. Among the drastic measures instructed in the meeting to immediately suppress the fires were the same closure of the protected forest areas, zero-burning in farm areas, plus long-term measures with details that have not been available.

The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, meanwhile, has tried to address the fires outside the country. It has been in contact with the ASEAN Secretariat, which has eventually issued the highest level of its alert against the growing number of hotspots in the Mekong region. This was done on March 3 following Thailand’s request. Alert Level 3 suggests the occurrence of hotspots beyond 250 for two consecutive days. 

Greenpeace Thailand, meanwhile, has called on Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha to declare a disaster zone for areas with PM2.5 beyond 35 µg/m³ for five consecutive days. It also called for new legal and economic interventions against farm commodity which is suspected to cause deforestation outside the country so that agro firms involving the production of such commodity can be subject to accountability and responsibility following the polluter-pay-principle. It also called for an end to coal-fired power plants in the country, citing they too cause air pollution.

Sonthi Kotchawat, an environmental and pollution expert, said the government has failed the test in addressing and solving the problem this year as their measures are proven to be helpless at the moment. He recommended people try to help themselves as best they can.

“It’s a bad fortune for the people (as the government has not taken serious action as it’s supposed to),” remarked Mr. Sonthi, a former senior official at Onep (The Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning), specialising in assessing environmental impacts.