Northern Thailand braces for severe air pollution crisis

Picture courtesy of Bangkok Post

Northern Thailand, specifically the provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Mae Hong Son, are bracing for severe PM2.5 air pollution. These areas, surrounded by mountains and hills, have previously been rated as the most polluted globally.

The pollution crisis has strained the public healthcare system and forced locals to invest in air purifiers and face masks for protection. While some residents can afford private health insurance, many cannot.

Opposition political parties, medical professionals, and civic groups have called on the government to consider recognising these provinces as disaster areas. However, the government is reluctant to do so, aware of the potential long-term impact on tourism if the areas gain a reputation for poor air quality.

The fiscal budget allocation delay, from October 2023 to likely the following month, has intensified the debate. Opposition parties argue that declaring Chiang Mai a disaster area would grant the province additional funds to control the forest fires causing much of the pollution.

However, the government and some locals argue against this. They worry that insurance companies could refuse claims from incidents within the disaster area and that the reputation could deter tourists from visiting Thailand.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin stated that the government must protect the tourism industry and that the decision not to declare these provinces disaster areas was taken after extensive discussion with relevant agencies.

Air pollution

Punlop Saejew, president of the Chiang Mai Tourism Council, echoed these concerns, stating that a disaster declaration would likely decrease tourism flow. He reported that between March 1 and March 16, Chiang Mai saw over 52,000 tourist arrivals via direct flights, generating at least 1 billion baht (US$ 28 million) for the province, particularly for the tourism sector supply chains. Punlop fears that without tourists, operators could accrue debts, leading to a surge in non-performing loans.

Punlop has suggested alternative approaches, such as the introduction of a Clean Air Act to deal with the PM2.5 haze. He urged all stakeholders to cooperate in implementing appropriate regulations, including severe punishment for offenders and rewards for those adhering to the rules.

For example, farmers who avoid slash-and-burn farming should be supported by the government, he suggested. Punlop also proposed a fundraising scheme to establish a fund to reduce air pollution, with investors being incentivised through tax reductions.

The pollution problem has also been flagged by Kamonsan Srivirach, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce of Phayao, and Thomas Wilson, president and chief executive of Allianz Ayudhya Assurance. Kamonsan believes that declaring Chiang Mai a disaster zone requires careful thought due to the potential impact on tourism, but acknowledges the benefit of increased disaster mitigation and healthcare funding.

Wilson stated that pollution is a significant issue for Thailand, caused mainly by forest fires and crop burning in the northern region and heavy traffic, factories, and construction in Bangkok.

The implications for the private insurance industry have been less significant than the public health impacts due to the variance in insurance penetration rates in the north compared to Bangkok. Insurance penetration rates are higher in Bangkok due to greater income levels and industry education, meaning the impact on respiratory disease claims is likely to be higher in Bangkok than in the north, reported Bangkok Post.

However, Wilson suggests that both public and private measures should be explored to address the issue, including stricter enforcement of forest burning bans, encouraging remote work, and reducing electricity use.

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Alex Morgan

Alex is a 42-year-old former corporate executive and business consultant with a degree in business administration. Boasting over 15 years of experience working in various industries, including technology, finance, and marketing, Alex has acquired in-depth knowledge about business strategies, management principles, and market trends. In recent years, Alex has transitioned into writing business articles and providing expert commentary on business-related issues. Fluent in English and proficient in data analysis, Alex strives to deliver well-researched and insightful content to readers, combining practical experience with a keen analytical eye to offer valuable perspectives on the ever-evolving business landscape.

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