Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha set a seven-day deadline for temporarily easing air pollution in northern Thailand, as he traveled to Chiang Mai on Tuesday to get a close-up look at a smog blanketing the region.
Arriving by helicopter at Fort Kawila in Chiang Mai, Prayuth spoke to officials and civilian volunteers who were fighting agricultural fires that had been burning for weeks and whose smoke created the smog.
“Today, I order (officials) to improve the situation in seven days as a short-term measure,” Prayuth said as he delivered tools and face masks to fire fighters at the fort.
“These troubles need time to solve because these largely stem from man-made fires along with other causes. So we need to make those who set fires to clear farmland understand this,” Prayuth said without detailing potential long-term solutions.
At its peak on Saturday, fine particles measured 700 micrograms per cubic meter of air, far worse than the country’s safety level of 50, according to government officials and the Air Quality Index, a website that measures air pollution worldwide.
The Thai military deployed helicopters to dump huge buckets of water on hotspots while planes seeded clouds to produce rain for deterring the air pollution, which can lead to health issues including rashes, dizziness and even death. On the ground, firefighters armed with hoes and shovels worked to contain the blazes.
Chiang Mai Gov. Supachai Iamsuwan responded to Prayuth’s order, according to a report in the Singapore-based Straits Times newspaper.
“We will ramp up all operations and solve the problem within seven days. We will go down to the smallest (fire) in the villages,” he said.
Many of the fires have been blamed on farmers burning corn and sugar cane fields following the harvest so the land can be planted again during the next growing season, according to officials.
Prayuth said “hot spots” in the region had been reduced from 3,000 to 1,900 by Tuesday.
“The wildfires are relatively more serious this year because of the heat,” Thanakrit Chanthajamrassilpa, district chief of Mae Sariang in Mae Hong Son, told reporters. “Once they broke out they were even more severe because of abundant flammable substances.”
‘Much worse this year’
By Tuesday, fine particles measured 260 micrograms per cubic meter in Mae Hong Son province, west of Chiang Mai, followed by Chiang Rai at 165 and Chiang Mai at 147 – still above the country’s safety level, according to the World Air Quality Index.
All three locations are top Thai tourist destinations.
The pollution has taken its toll, a village official near Chiang Dao Cave in Chiang Mai told BenarNews
“It has affected tourism. Many locals did not earn income because no tourists came,” Kamron Inta said. “What we want from the government are wildfire funds, fire walls and vigilant teams.”
In downtown Chiang Mai, residents held signs “Stop Burning! The smog problem affects our health,” and called on Prayuth to declared Chiang Mai a disaster area and ban corn farming over 1.58 million acres.
“The smog is much worse this year than last year. It is a good opportunity for the prime minister to see it for himself and take it seriously,” Chiang Mai resident Nathika Prakobboon said. “I hope we don’t face this again next year.”
Nikom Putta, president of the Ping River Basin Conservation Group, called on the government to be more involved.
“I think the government must solve the problem by educating locals to make them feel they own the forest,” he told BenarNews.
“For those who grow corn, the government should find them an alternative option to stay away from burning. We must blame food companies who benefit from them and have them help solve the problem, too,” he said.