The most consistently disappointing part about Thailand country is its governance. And this week, as Bangkok becomes enveloped in ever-thickening smog and the air quality index climbed up, we all have our faces in our palms asking: what is the government doing?
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha took to Twitter to assure the nation that “the government has not ignored this issue”. He explained, “We are cleaning the streets, and spraying water to reduce pollution…”
Spraying water to reduce pollution. Yes, it’s as silly as it sounds. Watch for yourself:
The governor of Bangkok subsequently announced that such efforts were successful at reducing pollution to acceptable levels. One must wonder why there is such a deep level of general distrust in politicians to tell the truth. The public knows a PR gimmick when it sees one; even worse, they can tell a stupid PR gimmick from one that at least takes into account the population’s intelligence.
Perhaps there’s a tendency among authorities to act incompetently when air quality is poor. I endured several weeks of horrifying air quality during the California wildfires. During that time, even as all other university campuses in the bay closed down, the UC Berkeley administration announced that it would remain open. Instead, it would mitigate the impact of poor air quality on students by allowing everyone to use the university’s golf carts to get to class. This hilariously bad decision was endlessly mocked until the university caved to the inevitable and closed.
It is a funny story, but it points to a way forward: initial missteps aside, the situation can still be rectified. The Thai government can and must do better.
In the short term, the government needs to take immediate action to reduce pollution using methods that are more effective than spraying water into the air. It would do well to publicly identify the smog’s causes: industrial activities, open-air burning, and traffic. Then, the government must do all it can to mitigate these issues as quickly as possible.
One way would be to order institutions and schools closed in order to reduce city traffic. It sounds drastic, perhaps, but countries around the world close their schools and colleges when air quality deteriorates. Not only would pollution from the intense Bangkok traffic immediately decrease, it would also protect sensitive groups, such as children, from having to breathe in the particles.
A variety of other techniques can also be used, with less effect. Cloud seeding (which the government, to their credit, has considered) can be used as rain has been scarce in Bangkok. We always see large trucks spewing out huge amounts of grey smoke, blatantly against regulations: take them off the streets. N-95 masks should be handed out to the most vulnerable members of the population.
We must also consider, however, that such measures only deal with the symptoms of a deeper issue. For too long Thailand has focused on economic development at the expense of the environment, leading to Bangkok’s systems of polluted canals, deforestation and the destruction of beaches. Some of these trends have been reversed; Maya Beach, for example, was closed to tourists to permit a level of environmental restoration. But our focus on development at all costs has now caught up with us.
So how do we move forward from here?
Some in the government have argued that in the long term, pollution will resolve itself in 3-4 years as Bangkok’s mass transit system is completed. That statement is extremely optimistic. Bangkok’s sprawling and unplanned nature means that our car culture is going nowhere. Instead, it is up to politicians to successfully formulate policies that can balance economic growth and environmental sustainability. An idea (admittedly radical) would be borrowing from the ‘Green New Deal‘ proposed by the US Democrats, where the economy is stimulated via spending on green infrastructure and initiatives.
Environmental policy is inherently political. It is for this reason that environmental issues have the possibility of playing a role in the next general election. Nothing sparks environmental awareness quite like an issue that directly impacts everyone, and Bangkok’s voters will have been rudely awoken o the problem. No one wants Bangkok to consistently become Beijing or New Delhi. Voters are not demanding change without cause, either; Greenpeace has identified that in 2015, PM2.5 particles caused the premature deaths of 37,500 people. All major parties would be well-advised to put forward their environmental policies, with actionable items on how to reduce pollution. Indeed, in an era of increased skepticism about GDP as the be-all and end-all, an increased focus on environmental sustainability would be no bad thing at all.
Prayut himself should know that sending a couple of tweets about how he is dealing with the pollution issue and declaring that he believes “things will soon get better”, absent concrete policy proposals, is not credible. The current government needs to stop spraying water and saying sweet words. It is not enough to know that the government is not ignoring the issue; we must instead demand that it take immediate action. A capital city covered in smog is unacceptable. Thailand must do better.