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Catholic villagers choke on Thailand's deadly smog

Ethnic Karen are caught up in an environmental disaster caused by land clearing and wildfires

Catholic villagers choke on Thailand's deadly smog

Karen people in Chiang Mai wearing traditional costumes take part in a parade. Northern Thailand has been hit hard by air pollution this year, with a thick haze enveloping much of the region. (Photo by Tibor Krausz/ucanews.com)

In a remote hillside village in the mountainous Mae Taeng district of Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand, the air was once crisp and clear with the scent of pines and wild flowers wafting in the breeze. Only wood smoke from hearths in bamboo shacks and outdoor cooking fires fouled the air here and there.

It’s no longer so. For weeks on end a thick haze has been blanketing this hamlet of ethnic Karen tribes people. The Catholic villagers, most of whom eke out meager livings as subsistence farmers, have found themselves caught up in an unfolding environmental calamity.

“Often there is so much smog that I cannot breathe,” says Yupin Moosooloi, a petite 24-year-old woman who works as a caretaker for children at a nearby school.

Still, the villagers are having it comparatively easy. In nearby Chiang Mai, a historic city nestled in the foothills of undulating mountain ranges, the miasma of toxic air has been even worse.  

“At least here on the hills we can still see trees from a distance,” Yupin explains. “In the city the smog is a lot thicker. There you can barely see anything at all. The smog covers everything.”

Once famed for its alpine ambience with bracing fresh air, Chiang Mai has been enveloped in a thick haze for months. Nor has this state of affairs been a one-off. Each year during the dry season, which can last until May, local farmers torch large swathes of dry vegetation to clear the land for new crops.

Such traditional land clearing can spiral into forest fires and has led to seasonal hazes for years. This year, though, the haze has been especially severe. Air quality in the city and its environs has consistently been well above levels deemed safe by the World Health Organization.

The noxious air stings eyes, irritates throats and penetrates lungs. Some hilltribe villagers may try to protect themselves by wrapping pieces of clothing around their noses and mouths, but that can serve as a palliative solution at best.

“On the hills we can’t do much to protect ourselves,” Yupin says. “The smog happens every year but this time it has been very bad. In the city many people use face masks outdoors and air purifiers in their houses, but in my village we don’t have money for that.”

Serious health risks

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Many of the Catholic villagers also remain largely unaware of the serious health risks that come from being exposed to high levels of airborne pollutants. As a result, they may not even realize that they need to protect themselves from air pollution in the first place.

They certainly should. Last month local concentrations of microscopic aerosols known as fine particulate matter shot up to as much as 532 µg/m3 (one millionth of a gram per cubic meter of air). That is five times the level considered safe by experts and was the worst level of air pollution anywhere in the world, surpassing even notoriously polluted cities in India.

Prolonged exposure to such high levels of toxic air can cause severe health problems or exacerbate existing ones, from pulmonary diseases to debilitating heart conditions. Air pollution has also been linked by scientists to a variety of ailments affecting children and the elderly, including learning disabilities in youngsters and early onset dementia in adults.  

“The worst affected in my village are the children,” Yupin says. Several youngsters have been suffering from cold-like symptoms such as persistent coughs and recurrent chills. “Some of them have even started coughing up blood,” she adds.

Health care remains rudimentary in her village, with tribespeople relying on traditional forms of healing and occasional visits by qualified physicians for their medical needs.

Ironically, local people are partly responsible for their own plight. “Smog is caused by wildfires,” Yupin says. “Some farmers leave cigarette butts burning while they look after their grazing animals. The dry vegetation then catches fire.”

When that happens, there is often little that villagers can do apart from waiting for a blazing fire to burn itself out or for a downpour to douse it.

“Government officials on the hills are understaffed, so when a wildfire occurs, they ask villagers to help put it out. In my area there has not been a wildfire yet, but it has already happened in other villages,” Yupin says.

To make matters worse, locals also routinely dispose of their accumulated waste by simply burning it. That can then lead to lingering billows of toxic fumes. When done on a large scale, the burning of waste can create a serious environmental hazard.

This year’s seasonal haze has been badly affecting not only Chiang Mai but also other northern provinces, blighting the daily lives of people. The chronically high air pollution has been driving tourists away, which has caused losses of much-needed tourism revenue in cash-strapped northern provinces where standards of living remain well below those in Bangkok.

Despite a national outcry over the persistent air pollution in northern Thailand, the central government in faraway Bangkok has done little to ameliorate the situation.  

During a recent visit to the area, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha pledged that his administration would solve the problem of air pollution within days. The government has yet to act on that promise beyond deploying water cannons to spray the hazy air with water, which has had little lasting effect.

What is needed, experts say, is a long-term solution to the seasonal haze. Several have called on Thai authorities to clear the air once and for all by incentivizing local farmers not to engage in open burning.

“[The authorities] should find a way to dissuade farmers from burning [waste and dry vegetation] by giving them incentives,” says Dr. Rangsrit Kanjanavanit, a cardiologist who lectures at the faculty of medicine at Chiang Mai University.

In the meantime, people in Yupin’s village are pinning their hopes not on the government but on Mother Nature. “I think the smog will subside when it starts raining regularly in a couple of months,” the young woman says. “That’s what we are waiting for.”

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