Park rangers mobilised to douse forest fires in Chiang Mai in mid-March, when haze hit the province hard. Credit: DNP

The rising challenge of transboundary haze

The Pollution Control Department (PCD) has filed an appeal on behalf of the National Environment Board against the Chiang Mai Administrative Court’s ruling, which ordered the NEB to declare a pollution control zone over some northern provinces including Chiang Mai to tackle the haze heavily complained about by the locals. The reason? There is something beyond the border that challenges all rather than the factors inside the country

As a former forestry chief long familiar with satellite images, Athapol Charoenshunsa, now a pollution control chief, has a reason to believe that the designation of a pollution control zone in some northern provinces hit hard by haze would not be worthwhile.

Based on data from some of those images, Mr. Athapol sees hotspots in the northern areas, which were cited as a prime source of the haze there during the past few months, have declined drastically, compared to those detected in some years before.

Beyond the borderlines, however, Mr. Athapol observes a large number of hotspots, which suggests an unprecedented trend regarding the haze problem that needs to keep an eye on for years to come.

“This is the very first year that we can see such a contrast picture, and it is the rising challenge that we need to keep an eye on for years to come,” said Mr. Athapol.

Even though the number of hotspots in the northern areas significantly dropped during the past few months, the haze problem with PM2.5 which is harmful to people’s health intensified, prompting some locals to become very unhappy and decide to file a complaint to the Administrative Court in mid-March, the first case of its kind.

Rangers rushed to douse the fires in the forest in Chiang Mai in mid-March, when the haze was at its height. Credit: DNP

The Chiang Mai Administrative Court then took the case for deliberation almost immediately. It eventually ruled in favour of the complaint by ordering the National Environment Board (NEB) to declare Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Chiang Rai, and Mae Hong Son, hit by haze the hardest over the past few years as a pollution control zone.

This is in line with Article 59 of the Environmental Quality Promotion and Protection Act.

In accompanying with its ruling, the court reasoned that this would pave the way for a more integrated approach in tackling the haze, which is found to be critically harmful to people’s health in the areas.

The court learned that these provinces from 2018 to this year endured up to 31 days with PM2.5 haze beyond the standard, which is set at 50 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3), and in some days, the concentration of the fine dust was up to three or four times of the standard.

The new work approach, it cited, would allow more systematic and integrated planning and work among concerned agencies, including that from local organisations, which it said, know the areas and the problem well.

“Although authorities at a provincial level as well as environmental management executives have realized how critical the problem is and attempted to solve the problem, the haze remains severe.

“…By arguing that the problem is not yet critically harmful to people’s health and it can be solved without a declaration of a pollution control zone, this is not in line with the growing problem and does not make sense. It is equivalent to unlawful discretion,” the court stated.

Following the ruling, which was first heard in mid-April, the NEB and the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry as its arm had 30 days to appeal. The deadline was May 8, and they have just done so accordingly with the PCD being assigned to proceed with all required procedures, including studying facts and establishing the causes and impacts of the problem to accompany the appeal.

The number of hotspots this year is less than the year before, but the northern haze problem was severe over the past few months. Credit: DNP

The arguments

Based on the PCD’s reviews, the number of days in the North that had PM2.5 beyond the standard has reduced when compared to that of last year, or 96 from 105 days, but the highest concentration of PM2.5 in 24 hours has far surpassed that of last year, or 402 ug/m3, compared to 366 ug/m3.

The number of hotspots in 17 northern provinces from January 1 to April 18 was 58,769, which drastically dropped from 122,687 recorded in the past year, or by over 50%.

The first five provinces with the highest number of hotspots were Mae Hong Son (11,376), Chiang Mai (7,620), Tak (7,253), Lampang (5,716), and Phetchabun (4,355). The hotspots were located in protected forests the most, at 43%, followed by forest reserves (37%), agricultural areas (15%), communities (4%), and roadsides (1%).

The number of hotspots in neighbouring countries, meanwhile, was far larger. In Myanmar, up to 577, 562 hotspots were detected, followed by Cambodia (397,319), Lao PDR (180,073), and Vietnam (61,702).

Overall, the trend of hotspot occurrence in the region this year has decreased, compared to last year, but the reduction percentage is still relatively low (Lao PDR 30%, Vietnam 29%, Cambodia 19%, and Myanmar 14%, respectively), according to the PCD. This shows the improvement of the situation, but there still is a problem, said Mr. Athapol. 

“The fact is it’s haze, which can reach all. The dust, PM2.5, knows no borders and the pollution control zoning would not be of help in this case,” said Mr. Athapol.

Cornfields in Shan State, Myanmar. Photos courtesy of Thitipan Pattanamongkol

Therefore, declaring some northern provinces as a pollution control zone would not directly address the problem, he said.

Over the past years, the government has been on the right track in tackling the problem, Mr. Athapol pointed out, saying it came up with a policy to address the problem and to declare it as a national agenda.

Since, new structures and planning have been developed and put in place to tackle the problem, and last year the more immediate plan to get the work more focused in target areas was also introduced to guide concerned authorities, Mr. Athapol added.

“There may be a gap that needs to be filled up, such as more work contributed from local organisations or more cooperation from the locals, but at least we have had mechanisms in place to deal with the problem.

“The challenge is the uncontrollable factor outside the country and the pollution control zoning would not help either,” said Mr. Athapol, adding the declaration of such a zone instead would rather draw a setback on the localities as it would taint their images as well as business activities in the areas.

Cornfields in Shan State, Myanmar. Photo courtesy of Thitipan Pattanamongkol

Cornfields and the rising challenge

The latest findings by Greenpeace Thailand, in collaboration with the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISDA) and Chiang Mai University, have reflected a similar trend of the haze problem in the Mekong region.

According to their latest report launched recently, the Mekong’s PM2.5, the Forests, and Cornfields during the Year 2015 to 2020, there has also been a critical change in burning areas, hotspots, as well as the intensity of PM2.5 over the past six years.

Based on satellite images from MODIS, the researchers have learned that on average, two-thirds of the hotspots in the Mekong region were in forest areas, and one-third of them were located in cornfields. But in 2019, the hotspots were located in cornfields the most.

When looking at land-use change, they have found that during these years, over 10.6 million rai of the region’s forest areas were turned into cornfields; over five million rai in Lao PDR, followed by Myanmar (around 2.39 million rai), and Northern Thailand (2.55 million rai).

These findings are in line with the report by the Global Forest Watch, which notes that last year Laos was ranked as the world’s 8th, which has lost primary forest the most. Since 2001, Laos has lost up to 20.6 million rai, or 19% of its forest.

Corn or maize is grown in the region to feed more animal husbandry industry than the population, Greenpeace noted, while pointing to the relationship of corn growers, corn seeds, and trade and exports, which happens beyond the border and drives the activity.

“The PM2.5 pollution is still the region’s crisis and its effects on people’s health remain unchanged,” the report concluded.

Tara Buakamsri, Greenpeace Thailand’s director, noted that the report is to remind policymakers in the region of the political will to protect people’s health from PM2.5 pollution and the exploitation of related industries.

He suggested legal mechanisms be introduced to keep the industries accountable as well as safeguard the community’s rights to land and forests.

Asean’s Haze Agreement and the Haze-Free ASEAN by 2020 roadmap, he further noted, must be subject to review, while more concrete measures to deal with transboundary haze should be introduced, especially to help establish “equity” in transboundary air pollution management.

Mr. Athapol attends the ASEAN secretariat’s teleconference meeting today to address the problem and exchange views on the After Action Review with other Mekong country representatives. Credit: PCD

Mr. Athapol said all ASEAN member states have recognized that and tasked the ASEAN Secretariat to review the Roadmap, It’s expected to finish this year, he said, adding that the Chiangrai Plan of Action 2017 under the roadmap was also agreed in principle for an extension late last year.

Mr. Athapol said within the context of regional collaboration, all member states can help each other by enforcing the mechanisms of the haze agreement (ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution), and joining hands to intensify regional cooperation and efforts to minimize any possible occurrence of transboundary haze from land and forest fires, he said.

The problem, after all, is about how farming is practised in the region, especially mono-cropping, and it may need a major reform so that it can be sustainable, he said.

Mr. Athapol said land and forest in the region is the same biosphere that people should help one another take care of. As impacts in one place can be felt in the other place farther away, any activities or businesses that cause impacts to such the sphere should be held responsible. “It’s a joint responsibility of all”, he said.