EARTH Thailand

Bangkok faces its very own 'airpocalypse'

Bangkok Post 02 February 2019 | Anchalee Kongrut

City schools have been closed. Soldiers have been deployed to check and shut down factories that pollute the air we breathe (but we never find out which factories have been closed!) And our prime minister is acting tough in a desperate bid to combat the PM2.5 haze-causing particles.

His drastic actions remind me of Chinese President Xi Jinping. In the winter of 2013, when PM2.5 levels in Beijing hit over 600 microgrammes per cubic metre, and up to 900 in some areas (yes, 600 and 900!), Mr Xi rolled enforced harsh regulations followed them through to the end.

He introduced long-term measures to ensure China's sky is blue by embracing renewable energy and shutting down coal-fired power plants around the capital city (he moved some to nearby provinces, though). He removed from the roads vehicles with old engines, speeding up subway construction around Beijing, and made sure public mass transit is decent and affordable. The city was told to plant more trees.

As I pen this column, the highest PM2.5 level in Beijing is 46 microgrammes per cubic metre! Apparently, President Xi has shown that political will can dissipate PM2.5 dust. My comrades in Beijing have told me that the Beijing sky is blue and no longer soupy. The days when people could not leave home without masks are a thing of the past!

In Bangkok, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has declared war against the invisible fine dust.

I wonder whether he -- or even our country -- will ever win over PM2.5?

In the first battle last week, our government clearly lost. Apparently, artificial rain and water shooting cannons cannot subdue the PM2.5 dust. Nearly 500 city schools were closed and several offices allowed their staffers to work at home.

The point is that our country is solving the problem at the end of the pipe.

As the prime minister threatened to close down polluting factories, and asked some to reduce their operational hours, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) was reading a revised law on factories that, if approved, could make the fight against PM2.5 ever tougher.

This updated version of the 1992 Factories Act would give the Ministry of Industry the power to approve and monitor factories across the country.

The draft has received a lot of criticism. On Thursday, a network of civic groups submitted petition letters to the government, asking it to drop the draft which they said will allow small factories to open too easily and may compromise environmental protection efforts.

"The updated version will lead to the proliferation of small factories such as waste recycling plants. It skips some processes, like operating permits, to give convenience to business operators. The question is how can we ensure environmental protection standards will be observed?" Dawan Chantarahasdee, community adviser for Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand (Earth), one of the civic groups that opposes the revised version.

The law is the brainchild of Uttama Savanayana when he took charge of the Industry Ministry. Mr Uttama has quit the cabinet to lead the pro-regime Palang Pracharath Party.

The new version is set to scrap the factory licence renewal process which, according to some factories and investors, allowed state authorities to demand kickbacks. Licence renewal exemption will benefit some 60,000 factories.

Section 15 of the 1992 Factory Act required that factories renew the licence, also known as Ror Ngor 4, every five years. Some bad official asked for under-the-table money from factory owners, for both new and renewal licences.

Mr Uttama, then industry minister wanted to get rid of the licence requirement in order to tackle corruption and ease the regulatory burden on investors and factory owners.

The law has won praise from the Federation of Thai Industries, which said it will help factories of all sizes to carry on with operations, particularly small- and medium-sized enterprises.

The updated draft will be tabled for NLA reading in the middle of this month.

I believe the government should reconsider. Of course, the country needs business and our investors need some convenience to trade and operate. But the environment needs to be taken care of.

In terms of business, the government wants to shift our archaic industrial sector towards green industry. The heart of the clean and green industry is in inspection and monitoring. The era of helping small business by giving them a free pass is long gone.

If such practices continue, Bangkok will face its very own "Airpocalypse", the moniker that foreign media used to describe air pollution in Beijing.

The difference is that we will not win.


Anchalee Kongrut is an assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.