Chiang Mai is struggling under haze and pollution, a situation which is not only affecting locals and visitors but also affect in the longer term tourism activities and the economy.
Since February, fine dust particles have reached hazardous levels, turning the city into one of the worst affected regions in Thailand in terms of pollution. Chiang Mai most famous sightseeing, Doi Suthep with its famous temple has been living in a thick haze, hiding as well the panoramic view over town.
Locals complained heavily over the incapacity of the provincial governor to tackle the problem. But in a very unusual way in Thailand, locals started to look themselves for solutions to fight smog.
There is a need first to communicate and monitor surrounding rural communities. They are responsible to the burning of forests to clear land for agricultural purposes. However as climate change is also affecting northern Thailand with less rain than in the past, fires generate heavy smoking which linger over the region due to its mountainous topography. Chiang Mai is in a valley and smog’s dissipation is rather slow.
Haze has been a seasonal problem in the North for over a decade. It usually appears between January and April, with a peak in March as the extremely dry conditions increase the magnitude and number of fires. Additional pollution comes from forest fires in neighbouring Lao PDR and Myanmar which stretch up to Northern Thailand.
Stringent measures need to be tackle and a recent meeting between authorities and locals came out with some solutions. The Bangkok Post reported earlier this week over the meeting between Chiang Mai Governor Supachai Eiamsuwan and Dr Rungsrit Kanjanavanit, a cardiologist and lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine at Chiang Mai University who is also a fervent environmentalist.
The March 26 meeting agreed on short- and long-term solutions with Chiang Mai University being appointed as a centre to coordinate actions and collect scientific data. Measures must be taken to avoid the burning of land by providing teaching to local farmers but also give them opportunities to divert their income with agricultural alternatives.
Another task for the government would be to speed up the development of public transport as a true alternative to private cars. As Chiang Mai city has been expanding rapidly in recent years, the town is missing a comprehensive pollution-free transportation system. They are now plans for a LRT/tramway system around town but it will likely take a decade before turning concrete. Start for the construction is due next year.
Some citizens asked the government to designate Chiang Mai as a disaster zone. The governor has vehemently dismissed to turn the province as a disaster zone out of fear it may tarnish the province’s image as a tourist destination. Rainfall is however expected next week, which could bring a welcome end to pollution.
In recent years, ASEAN has suffered from trans-boundary haze caused by open burning from palm oil plantations in Indonesia but little has been done by the association to address seriously the issue which already had a disastrous -although temporary- effect on tourism.