CHIANGRAI – A smog covering most of northern Thailand will stop the annual exodus of Songkran holiday makers in its tracks unless nature comes to the rescue.
Northern provinces are in the grip of a health threatening smog caused by the wholesale burning of paddy fields and forests across the Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.
Provincial governors say they are speeding up efforts to fight the haze and are closely monitoring burning activities, but on the ground scenes in Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai provinces are identical to last year when thousands of residents had to seek hospital treatment to combat respiratory ailments.
There is no evidence of a rapid response or the enforcement of measures neatly written on government memos.
Authorities in the northern provinces know they are about to lose billions in tourism revenue when the Songkran holiday makers learn the truth and head elsewhere for the five-day break. Short of a rain making miracle, they will book their holidays at beach resorts or provinces that are not cloaked in smog.
Chiang Mai deputy governor, Adisorn Kamnerdsiri, said that the average dust particle level has reduced, but remained higher than the safety limit.
These comments fly in the face of that facts residents encounter on the ground. The level of microgrammes per cubic metre are over 200 in both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and as high as 350 in Mae Hong Son. On a typical day in Bangkok the reading is 50 to 60 at the Dusit Thani intersection on Silom Road.
According to the Pollution Control Department’s chart the danger level starts at 100 and is tagged unhealthy. The zone 200 to 300 is described as very unhealthy. Mae Hong Son is in the red zone, 300 to 500, described as hazardous to health.
On Monday 0900, the level of dust particles was measured at 193 microgrammes per cubic metre at The Provincial Hall in Chiang Mai town and 202 microgrammes per cubic metre at Yupparaj Wittayalai School in Chiang Mai.
These levels are seriously unhealthy causing respiratory infections, smarting eyes, coughs and headaches.
At least one international school issued a written warning to parents noting the figures had gone into the orange area that requires students to remain indoors in air-conditioned class rooms.
Officials are deliberately talking down the risks to save tourism, claiming a reading of 120 is within the safe zone, while the PCD clearly sets the threshold at 100.
TTR Weekly has an editorial office in Chiang Rai and a sales office in Chiang Mai, so the visible impact and health risks are clearly evident in both locations to this publication without having to quote a well-meaning government official. A hill range 500 to 600 metres high less than 2 km from the TTR Weekly Chiang Rai base is no longer visible. The entire hilly landscape is lost in the smog. That has been the case since Sunday.
Local residents continued to light fires along the highway 1152 that leads to Chiang Khong at 0600 this morning despite a standing order that bans all fires including the burning of garbage.
Chiang Rai’s tourism’s appeal is a mix of cultural attractions, religious landmarks, its artists and the natural beauty of its mountain scenery and environment. For two years in a row the haze has turned into a province wide disaster that presents a serious risk to health and commercial well-being.
Around 180 km south, Chiang Mai’s deputy governor warns: “If the situation becomes a crisis, it will threaten the health of local residents as well as the tourism industry which generates major income for the province.
“If the smog worsens from now to the Songkran festival, some tourists may head to other provinces instead of Chiang Mai,” he told local media.
Shoring up tourism is more important to provincial officials than facing the facts that provinces in the North failed to deal with the annual smog in the same manner central plain governors failed to deal with flood warnings in 2011.
Provincial authorities claim to be spraying water mist into the air to increase humidity and remove some dust particles from the air. However, helicopters and small planes are grounded because the smog reduces flight visibility.
Travel to North Thailand is not advised this week if for no other reason that its an uncomfortable, stifling experience and the natural beauty of the region is hidden. The smog is evident in Phrae and thickens in Lampang and Phayao extending to the entire far north including Nan, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son.
Officials said earlier there were 80 dangerous days, 21 January to 10 April, but until last week most provinces were clear of smog. That situation ended last week and from there on conditions have worsened.
Residents hope the annual rain that usually hits the north around Songkran (mid-April) will clear the smog. However, the weather forecast is for an unusually dry festival week and the long-term impact of the El Nino phenomenon will also reduce the chances of rain.
The smog will once more shake the tourism and hotel business of North Thailand as tour operators correctly redirect bookings to smog- free destinations in Thailand to meet client concerns.
While provincial officials say they are armed and ready to fight smog, only mother nature can save the north from suffering massive health costs and tourism revenue losses. If it rains over the next two weeks, the north gets bailed out. If not, no matter what provincial governors say both domestic and international travelers will head to the beach where a fresh sea breeze will keep pollution levels in the safe 0 to 30 zone. – by Wanwisa Ngamsangchaikit TTR Weekly