In mid-March, the city with the worst air pollution in the world wasn’t an industrial powerhouse populated by millions. It was Chiang Mai, the tourist-friendly cultural center in northern Thailand.
And for Chiang Mai and its environs, that was the beginning, not the end, of northern Thailand’s trouble with air pollution.
The air pollution was caused in part by forest fires, notably the practice of the area’s farmers of starting fires to clear land for new harvests. Some Chiang Mai residents said the poor air quality showed that the government’s efforts to stop farmers from exacerbating northern Thailand’s seasonal haze problem were not working.
The government “should find a way to dissuade farmers from burning [waste] by giving them incentives,” Rangsrit Kanjanavanit, a lecturer and cardiologist at the Faculty of Medicine at Chiang Mai University, told the Bangkok Post at the time. When Thai military junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha visited the city ahead of an Asian financial summit, the city had an air quality index, or AQI, of 379 (“moderate” is 50 to 100) — the worst of any major urban center in the world, according to AirVisual, an app that measures the air quality index.
“The haze usually comes and goes within a week or two, but it’s been persistent this time — it’s the worst so far,” Khuanchai Supparatpinyo, director of Chiang Mai University’s Research Institute for Health Sciences, told Bloomberg early last month. “Is ‘Dirty Air’ the new normal for Thailand,” wondered the headline of one Thailand Business News article in early April.
The pollution persisted. And aside from the health hazards to humans and animals alike, there was another smog side effect. Chiang Rai, also in Thailand’s north, faced a similar problem. And the hotel industry lamented that spending during Songkran, the Thai new year festival in mid-April, was down about 20 percent, according to TTR Weekly, a Southeast Asian tourist website. Hazardous smog was thought to be behind the drop.
But as April turned to May, some complained that officials still had not snapped into action. “Provincial and district officials appear to be preoccupied with the task of deciding a date when residents can resume the burning of household rubbish in their gardens. The dates have changed at least three times in the last week when common sense would have dictated the province should put the lid on wholesale burning whatever the reason,” one TTR Weekly contributor wrote Tuesday. The Thaiger, an English-language Thai news outlet, reported the same day that forest fires got close to a revered shrine in northwestern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province over the weekend.
Residents of once picturesque Chiang Rai are suffering with sore throats, persistent coughs and have witnessed black ash falling from the sky. Mehmet Hassan took to Facebook to showcase the damage to his land and surrounding areas.
Perhaps, under different circumstances, the central government might get involved, especially with local officials stymied about to how to stop forest fires without denying farmers their livelihoods. But even though Thailand held elections in March, the results have not been finalized, no winner has been declared, and a new government in Bangkok still has not been formed. This has raised worries that the military won’t make good on its promise to turn the country over to democratic rule.
And so, on Tuesday morning Eastern Time, Chiang Mai came in eighth in AirVisual’s ranking of major cities by air pollution, with an AQI of 121. New York, by comparison, was 73rd with an AQI of 18.