Rising public frustration in Thailand over Chiang Mai’s air pollution crisis

Chiang Mai forest fire

Screenshot of video showing officials trying to contain a forest fire in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Source: YouTube video of NBT WORLD. Fair use

Since late March 2024, the level of PM 2.5 dust in Chiang Mai, Thailand, has increased at an alarming level until it became the world’s worst air quality. PM2.5 is a measure of particulate matter and an indicator of severe air pollution. Residents have bemoaned the slow response of the government in dealing with the emergency situation.

The AQI scale. Screenshot via Youtube

Authorities blamed the recurring haze on forest fires and the burning of land for agriculture cultivation in the surrounding areas. The haze was particularly bad this year, enveloping the skies of Chiang Mai and nearby cities with an air quality index of over 200 at some points. The numerical scores indicate the level of air pollution based on the World Air Quality Index (AQI), and anything above 100 is considered unhealthy — particularly for sensitive groups like those with medical or respiratory issues.

Meanwhile, local stakeholders insisted that there are many factors for the air pollution as they cautioned the public from blaming local farmers who have been practicing agriculture burning for decades without causing damage to the forest.

Officials identified 500 air pollution hotspots in April and over 6,000 hotspots in Thailand’s neighboring countries, Laos and Myanmar. According to news reports, more than 30,000 people in Chiang Mai have received medical treatment at a local hospital for illnesses linked to PM 2.5 air pollution during the first quarter of the year. Despite the disturbing trend, the government hesitated in declaring a state of emergency because of its potential grave impact on local tourism.

This prompted the Northern People’s Network to file a lawsuit against government agencies. This was followed by the People's Dust Lawsuit Network, which issued a citizen declaration placing the city under an air pollution zone category to “pressure the government and relevant state agencies to take more effective actions in solving this problem.”

In the name of the people of Chiang Mai, we hereby declare that Chiang Mai is now an air pollution zone, in order to raise awareness regarding the severity of the PM 2.5 situation.

Despite the severe air pollution situation, the government and responsible agencies have not utilized their legal powers to show or declare that Chiang Mai is in an air pollution crisis. Basic precautions such as warnings, distribution of protective equipment to the public, and efficient operations against forest fires have not been adequately implemented.

Jittakorn Olanratmanee, the husband of a university professor who died from lung cancer, reminded the government to take urgent action.

I would like to convey to the government that we have been facing this issue for a long time. However, since it has not directly impacted us significantly, we have not given it much importance. But one day, if someone in our family or we ourselves get lung cancer, we will immediately realise how severe the impact of PM2.5 is.

A senior reporter was recorded expressing her frustration with officials during a public meeting.

This cartoon depicts the alleged indifference of the incumbent prime minister with regard to the air pollution crisis.

The continuous increase in PM 2.5 levels finally prompted Chiang Mai officials to issue a directive authorizing work-from-home arrangements in the city for three days from April 9–11. Local administrative organizations (LAOs) were also advised to designate at least three clean air rooms per LAO in communities where there is a large population of people from vulnerable groups.

In a media interview, the provincial governor noted that air quality has actually improved this year but affirmed the need for sustained action.

The air quality has improved a lot from last year, as well as compared to the past, but we will work harder so our air will be of a high quality level, together with clear blue skies during dry seasons to come.

A former opposition leader has criticized officials who waited for 50 days before setting up emergency measures like the work-from-home policy.

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