Bangkok chokes as pollution busting efforts falter

Thailand’s capital has been blanketed in toxic smog for weeks and authorities are struggling to find a solution.

Bangkok, Thailand – The small park in Bangkok’s Rama III district is mostly popular with runners circling its neatly trimmed garden track to the sound of birdsong.

But on Thursday, they were joined by a convoy of fire trucks and half a dozen military drones, drawing dozens of curious onlookers.

After an hour setting up, the drones and water cannon were pumping thick plumes of water into the empty sky above. Speakers blared warnings about the operation and instructed runners to keep their distance.

The odd display was the Thai government’s latest attempt at curbing the alarmingly high levels of pollution that have been plaguing the capital for weeks. The drones, geared with water tanks and fire-fighting sprinklers, were supposed to break up the smog that has been smothering the city of around 10 million people for at least a month.

Initially, Thailand‘s authorities said the worsening pollution was being blown over from China, predicting that it would be gone within a week or so. Then, as the smog persisted, they tried cloud seeding. Now, drones and water cannon are their latest salvo.

“Do they actually think this is going to help?” asked Gong, a 50-year-old man who comes to the park often to use its free-weight gym.

“The only thing happening today is that runners are getting wet and they have to watch out for these drones,” he said, drawing laughter from weightlifters nearby.

Thailand deployed water cannon and drones to a local park in Bangkok to try and disperse the toxic smog that's been hanging over the city for weeks [Caleb Quinley/Al Jazeera]
Thailand deployed water cannon and drones to a local park in Bangkok to try and disperse the toxic smog that’s been hanging over the city for weeks [Caleb Quinley/Al Jazeera]

Toxic air

As amusing as they might have found the scene, Bangkok residents are welcoming any attempts to combat the toxic smog that has forced authorities to close more than 400 schools, advise people to wear a mask when they’re not indoors and limit the time they spend outside.

New research from Thailand’s National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) suggests Bangkok’s air has reached particularly concerning levels of toxicity, with the lingering smog being full of dangerous heavy metals and various carcinogenic compounds.

Professor Siwatt Pongpiachan, director of NIDA and a global leading expert on urban pollution, told Al Jazeera he was concerned to find that Bangkok’s air contained dangerous levels of cadmium, tungsten, arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) inside the fine dust air, known as PM 2.5.

Siwatt explained that their levels are particularly dangerous, based on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standards for measuring safe air, adding that Bangkok’s pollution was largely coming from within the city itself.

Drones have been used as part of Thailand's efforts to shift the smog that's settled over the city [Caleb Quinley/Al Jazeera]
Drones have been used as part of Thailand’s efforts to shift the smog that’s settled over the city [Caleb Quinley/Al Jazeera]

PAHs are toxic carcinogenic compounds that can be sourced to forest fires, car exhausts, cigarette smoke and insecticides, among others.

The Thai capital, meanwhile, has some 10 million registered vehicles, pollutant-pumping factories and numerous daily cremations.

Siwatt said the widespread burning of sugarcane fields in northern provinces is also contributing to the crisis, which makes tackling the problem extremely difficult.

The WHO has been campaigning to decrease toxic pollution around the globe for years, educating the public on the dangers to health and urging governments to prioritise clean air as megacities such as New Delhi and Beijing struggle with debilitating levels of pollution. Its guideline for PM2.5 is for an annual average of no more than 10 micrograms/cubic metre.

‘Sense of urgency’

Bangkok has never seen pollution on this scale, and many residents were shocked at the smog lurking above. On social media, where Thais often go to express their outrage, memes comparing the city to post-apocalyptic backdrops in films such as Bladerunner 2049 and Mad Max have been widely shared.

Many are concerned the government is focusing on the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem.

“I think we need to push the government with a sense of urgency if we want to see positive results,” said Sirima Panyametheekul, an academic in the Department of Environmental Engineering at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University. “We need urgent measures to be implemented, like reducing the density of traffic and cleaning the streets.”

Thailand also needs to adopt more stringent measures for PM2.5, she added.

The density of the microscopic particles can reach 50 micrograms for each cubic metre volume before the government has to act, according to Sirima, who recommends that level be halved.

Currently, air quality is sitting around 61 to 93 micrograms/cubic metre depending on the location.

“I know that’s challenging,” she said. “But it’s important. If not 25, we can at least start at 35 or 30.”

Women covering their face with protective masks at a bus stop in heavily polluted Bangkok last month [File: Sakchai Lalit/AP]
Women covering their face with protective masks at a bus stop in heavily polluted Bangkok last month [File: Sakchai Lalit/AP]

Need for legislation

The government, which dropped a plan to use sugar water that was supposed to “capture” the toxins, stands by its approach to the current air crisis.

“It’s going to work,” said Somjiak Nonthagaew, the director of Bangkok’s Fire and Rescue Department, on deploying drones and fire-fighting equipment to combat the smog.

“It should definitely help, but of course not 100 percent. We would have liked to do more, but we have limited options and resources. But we sprayed at six locations today, and we think it was a success,” added Nonthagaew, between shouting loud updates into his phone as the mist began to descend over the park.

But Siwatt is not convinced.

He says Thailand needs to develop policies that would reduce the toxic compounds in the air, citing neighbouring countries such as Singapore and the Philippines. He’s also urging authorities to introduce a Clean Air Act, like the one the British government rolled out after the deadly 1952 London Smog, which blanketed the UK capital for several days.

Thai authorities say that the current smog should lift in a few days as a result of their tackling operations. According to Somjiak, they plan to deploy water cannons and drones until the air quality improves.

But without major changes, the smog is bound to return.

“It’s going to take a few years before we see any Clean Air Act laws,” Siwatt said. “And before thinking about the timeframe, we need to convince the government and all the future political parties to agree that Thailand really needs clean air.”

Source: Al Jazeera