Every year in Northern Thailand, following the new year, the weather starts getting warmer, the sun shines every day… and the grey smoke creeps in, thicker and thicker. By March and April, much of the views are obscured by a layer of smog in all directions, sometimes even obscuring the sun.
This is caused by agricultural burning, where farmers set open fire to their harvested fields to prepare the land for the next crop cycle. This is mostly sugarcane, rice and maize fields. The most harmful pollutant these emissions is PM 2.5, which are smoke particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less.
WHO recommends a level of no more than 10μg/m3, however, this is often three to five times higher in North Thailand during these months, even reaching up to 400μg/m3. The small size of the particle allows it to enter into people’s respiratory systems and bloodstreams, and studies have linked it to contributing to asthma, COPD, respiratory infections, strokes, heart attacks and death.
Lower respiratory tract infections are the third highest cause of death in Thailand which has increased by 77.1% in the ten years between 2009 and 2019. Along with this, lung cancer and COPD are in the top ten causes of death. Air pollution is the seventh highest risk factor for death and disability in Thailand.
Open burning has been illegal in Thailand since 2020, however, the practice has been growing since that time. Despite making it illegal, the government has not provided farmers with any support or access to resources and services to change their practice.
Some farmers resort to burning it at night instead, so it is less noticeable where the smoke is coming from. Manual stalk cutting and collecting leaves is very time consuming and costly, and there is little access to machinery, which is expensive, and only used to clear less than 10% of the crops.
Poverty is an underlying factor that traps farmers in this cycle. Many farmers owe debts to large agricultural businesses, exacerbating by COVID-19 losses, and the falling prices of produce make it unfeasible to clear crops any other way.
What needs to be done?
- More research and studies into the environmental and health implications of open burning should be done to prioritise it to the government as a major environmental and public health issue that needs to be urgently addressed. It has impacts on quality of life, tourism, well-being and respiratory and cardiovascular health for residents and tourists for a significant portion of the year.
- Farmers need support to access to alternative ways of clearing crops, including access to grants, machinery and labour costs. As well as this, NGOs and local agricultural industries can work together with local farmers to change beliefs and find alternative, environmentally friendly ways of disposing of agricultural waste.
- A focus on planting seedlings on indigenous plants for forest restoration, and encouraging agro-forestry to reduce environmental smoke impacts.
- Protection to vulnerable populations by providing masks that protect against PM2.5, and building infrastructures that reduce pollution indoors.
– Aimee Vulinovich
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