Air Pollution in Chiang Mai – Please Stop Burning

Air Pollution in Chiang Mai – Please Stop Burning

Chiang Mai is a wonderful city. Unfortunately, this time of year there is a lot of smoke in the air. The growing traffic congestion doesn’t help matters, but the main problem is the slash and burn agriculture practices. It is quite common in Northern Thailand to see fires burning on the side of the road and in the hills. Most of what is being burned is organic debris from rice fields, and farms. To a lesser extent there is some burning of trash mixed in too. Being in a valley, the smoky air gets trapped in Chiang Mai and makes the air quality rather miserable from mid-March to mid-April. Hot, dusty, smoky and dry are words to define this season. It isn’t always like this though…

Here we are on Canal Road coming into Chiang Mai from Hang Dong. Blue skies all around! February 7, 2014.

Here we are on Canal Road coming into Chiang Mai from Hang Dong. Blue skies all around! February 7, 2014.

In the center of the Old City, Chiang Mai. Skies are quite blue! February 23, 2014.

In the center of the Old City, Chiang Mai. Skies are quite blue! February 23, 2014.

The new building at Panyaden School, looking kind of smoky. March 14, 2014

The new building at Panyaden School, looking kind of smoky. March 14, 2014.

Pink full moon over the Ping river. March 16th.

Pink (due to smoky air) full moon over the Ping river in Chiang Mai. March 16th, 2014.

In the Old City. Kind of blue sky. March 17, 2014.

In the Old City. Kind of blue sky. March 17, 2014.

And this was yesterday in Chiang Mai. Gross! March 21, 2014.

And this was yesterday in Chiang Mai. Gross! March 21, 2014. OK, to be fair, this is a an ugly view of Chiang Mai on any day…

...so here is the lovely Wat Phra Singh. Look at that smoggy sky. March 21, 2014.

…so here is the lovely Wat Phra Singh. Look at that smoggy white sky. March 21, 2014.

IMG_2354

3 Kings Monument. March 21, 2014

3 Kings Monument. March 21, 2014

Wat Inthakin facing west. March 21, 2014...

Wat Inthakin facing west…

...And facing east.

…and facing east. Look at the hazy sky. March 21, 2014.

In front of Hug Academy, right in the center of the Old CIty. Smoke filled air.

In front of Hug Academy, right in the center of the Old City. Smoke filled air. March 21, 2014.

The south side of the moat near Chiang Mai Gate. Smog of March 21, 2014.

The south side of the moat near Chiang Mai Gate. The smog of March 21, 2014.

I was cycling around the Old City while taking these pictures and had to go home because my eyes were red and burning from all the particulate matter in the air. At least I wasn’t coughing, but I’ve been sneezing today. It’s time to wear my heavy duty mask while cycling.

Curious to see just how bad the air was, I looked at this website http://aqmthai.com/ to better inform myself.

This is what I found: In the middle of the Old City

This is what I found: In the middle of the Old City at Yupparaj Wittayalai School the PM level was 237. Yikes! Wait, what does that mean?

As you can see from the chart, most numbers are in white, but red means ‘unhealthy levels’ of particulate matter. The exact number of what is unhealthy seems to vary from place to place, but anything over 100 isn’t good. 237 is horrendous! Trying to get a better sense of the air pollution, I checked the Air Quality Index:

AQI - Air Quality Index, Thailand. March 22, 2014

AQI – Air Quality Index, Thailand. March 22, 2014. Chiang Mai is in the unhealthy zone at 153.

Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 7.56.57 AMWhat is that blue part? Oh, a measurement taken on top of the mountain – Doi Suthep. It must be above the smog. Note: it is only 2 points away from moderate.

Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 7.57.50 AM

This explains a bit about the Air Quality Index

This explains a bit about the Air Quality Index

These graphs and charts aren’t fun at all, and the pictures of different faces are hardly original. To help keep some humor about the situation, a woman in Hong Kong devised the Bruce Lee Air Quality Index for her blog Expat Lingo. I like her ideas a lot. Perhaps in Thailand we could use a similar plan – the smiling to crying elephant? Maybe employ Thai comedian Khun Note Udom to liven up the AQI a bit? At least in Thailand, we know this air pollution is seasonal, and when the rains come, it will put out the fires and diminish the smoke.

Why is it so smoky?

This is a common scene just outside of town - the rice fields and mountain are stunning...and then there's the smoke. Please stop burning.

This is a common scene just outside of town – the rice fields and mountain are stunning…and then there’s the smoke. Please stop burning!

As for now, I sleep with the windows closed despite the heat. Each morning I wake up and walk out of my room, I immediately smell smoky air. Upon taking down my laundry, it smelled as if I had dried it over a bush fire, which, in a way, I had.

What is the solution? It’s a very complicated issue here. Stopping burning means using more labor intensive composting and tilling practices. It’s not an easy switch for farmers.  I am definitely not an expert on air pollution, or SE Asian farming. As a guest in this amazing country, I have no right to tell anyone how to do their business. Being an educator, I teach. It is my hope that the students will pass on the information and educate others in their communities. Children are the future. They are the ones who will make changes by leading the way to environmental sustainability.

As I was writing this very post, it started to rain for the first time in months. Hooray! Bring on the rain! Chiang Mai looks forward to having its clean air back!

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6 thoughts on “Air Pollution in Chiang Mai – Please Stop Burning

  1. Continually raising awareness of the burning issue around the World is important. If we keep doing it we may get through one day. I am not as polite as you are, maybe because I have lived in rural Thailand for 6 years. The people, although many are understandably ignorant of the finer points, are fully aware of the damage they are doing to themselves, others and the environment as it is pointed out to them each year in local and government announcements. I am afraid that unless they are spoon fed with an economically viable alternative they will not stop and so the problem will get worse if the populations increase. I have posted again on the subject today on http://www.jamoroki.com. Keep up the good work and keep unpolluted. James

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