Thailand — The rainy season will soon come to northern Thailand. The haze and smoke will go away. But the cancer-causing dust particles already inhaled by the population will not go away. They will remain embedded in our chest cavity.
If there is no action taken, our senseless “Burning Season” will continue.
When I moved here 40 years ago, Chiang Mai was naturally beautiful, with clean fresh air. I could not foresee then that it would become the congested and polluted city that it is today. That is already lamentable. Our burning season, however, is not just lamentable.
Northern Thailand currently has the highest rates of lung cancer in the Kingdom. The incidence of other chest diseases and cardiac conditions is also high. With each year of burning, more carcinogens accumulate in the lungs of those who live here.
Cancers can take years to develop. Often, they show no symptoms until it is too late.
Dr Sumitra Thongprasert, Emeritus Professor at Maharaj Nakorn Hospital and Medical College, Chiang Mai University, and senior Medical Oncologist at Bangkok Hospital, Chiang Mai, remarks: “Lung cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to treat. It is often diagnosed at a late stage. Early detection is not easy, and costs a lot of money.”
The reality is grim. Unless treated early, 90 per cent of patients with lung cancer will die.
If allowed to continue, the burning will create a frightening situation. Premature death and suffering will come to thousands of residents.
So why do we burn? It was never like this a few decades ago.
In recent years, the growing demand for animal feed and ethanol has greatly expanded maize cultivation in northern Thailand. This led to contract farming. Today, one major company alone requires more than 5.5 million tonnes of corn a year. Contracted Thai farmers are currently using about 6 million rai (9,600 sq km), and yield about 4 million tonnes. Myanmar and Laos provide the rest.
After the harvest, much of the 6 million rai of dry corn stalks are set alight. To put it in perspective, this represents an area more than six times that of the Bangkok Metropolis (1,569sqkm).
The huge volume of toxic smoke released from such an expanse is not difficult to imagine. But burning is not necessary.
Returning crop residues to the soil can be done using modern machinery. With government help, an increase in contracted price per kilo, and by using local co-operatives, the cost of this can be covered.
But there are other reasons. This is because much of the land used for corn cultivation comes from illegal slash-and-burn forest encroachment. Steep hill slopes and embedded tree roots make use of machinery difficult or impossible. Manual methods are time-consuming and impractical. The second cause of burning concerns our national forests, so far spared from encroachment. During the hot season, deciduous trees such as dipterocarp shed their leaves. In Chiang Mai alone, dipterocarp forests occupy 4 million rai. The broad leaves carpet the ground and crumble into flakes.
When the rains arrive two or three months later, they decompose. This provides valuable soil nutrition, just as nature intended.
But the big leaves also hide valuable “hed thob” mushrooms. Villagers set fire to the leaves to uncover the fungus, and stimulate growth.
Huge areas of northern Thailand burn as a result. Entire hillsides turn black as far as the eye can see.
In search of this source of easy cash, no respect is shown for nature. Wildlife, insects, seedlings, saplings and rare plants perish. Poisonous smoke fills the air.
Repeated forest burning over decades depletes potassium, calcium, and phosphorus in the soil. It destroys biodiversity, and upsets the eco-system. It stunts natural growth and reproduction. Soil erosion and flash floods often result. This irresponsible burning has nothing to do with the controlled clearing of underbrush to prevent larger fires. Forestry officials may do this in hot arid areas where there is no rainy season. Not here.
Except for the minority who benefit and prosper from burning, this is a lose-lose situation for everybody else, and for Thailand. Hospitals are full of respiratory and cardiac patients. Planes cannot land. Tourism declines. The economy suffers. Residents endure weeks of discomfort. Given all of these facts, a five-year-old child could tell us that we are going against the balance of nature, as well as flying in the face of common sense.
Put simply, this is utter stupidity.
So, are we going to allow a minority of selfish or uneducated people to destroy the health and well-being of an innocent majority?
No responsible government, anywhere, would allow this.
And if we maintain the status quo, things will get worse.
We can prolong the futile quest for solutions and techniques to reduce the haze. We can continue spraying water in the air, and flying aircraft around hoping to make it rain. We can carry on conducting investigative seminars and meetings, and listening to wise words from scientists and researchers.
We can keep monitoring the pollution levels so we can declare how safe or unsafe it is to breathe our air. We can jabber on about involving cooperation with provincial governors, district officers, agricultural officers, forestry authorities, and village headmen. We can announce “no burning”, with minor penalties for offenders who are never reported, far less caught and punished. We can appeal to neighbouring countries not to burn, yet continue to do it ourselves on a grand scale. Mass education and draconian law enforcement are the only ways out of this.
Creating awareness of the impending danger is the first essential. Few homes in Thailand do not have a television set. The government must broadcast and constantly repeat the hazards and consequences of burning on every Thai television channel. Graphic hospital and operating room footage should be included to drive the message home. A highly respected figure should conduct the programme. It should continue on prime time, including children’s schedules, until the whole nation understands the deadly seriousness of the situation.
With this understanding and grass roots support established, a total ban on all burning should be announced and enforced, effective from January 1, 2016. Penalties for offenders must be severe.
In the remaining months of 2015, the alternatives to burning can be urgently discussed, and implemented. These may be problematic, but they are certainly not rocket science. Nobody will believe that a government, particularly a powerful military one, is unable to stop people burning thousands of square kilometres of their own country.
We have the death penalty for murder. But what do we have for mass murder? If nothing is done, the deadly burning will happen again next year, and in the years to follow, until the inevitable health crisis unfolds. By then, it will be too late.
It will involve a huge cost in human lives, and medical treatment.
The whole world will then ask: “Why did no government prevent this from happening?”