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Cablegate: Reduced Burning Lessened Air Pollution During Dry Season

VZCZCXRO4335
PP RUEHCN RUEHDT RUEHHM
DE RUEHCHI #0091/01 1611013
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 091013Z JUN 08
FM AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0781
INFO RUEHRC/DEPT OF AGRICULTURE USD FAS WASHINGTON DC
RUEHZS/ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS
RUEHCN/AMCONSUL CHENGDU PRIORITY 0072
RUEHCHI/AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI 0843

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 CHIANG MAI 000091

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: SENV ECON EAGR ECIN TH BM CH LA
SUBJECT: REDUCED BURNING LESSENED AIR POLLUTION DURING DRY SEASON

CHIANG MAI 00000091 001.2 OF 002


-------
Summary
-------

1. Chiang Mai's notoriously polluted dry season showed markedly
improved air quality conditions from last year. Although the
causes of March and April pollution remain the same (crop
burning, forest fires, and vehicle emissions), government
efforts to make the public more aware of the dangers of burning
seem to have had a positive affect this year. Factors working
against further progress, however, include high crop and fuel
prices that make farmers reluctant to shift away from the
expedience of burning, and the ancient practice of man-made
forest fires among impoverished hill tribe communities. End
Summary.

------------------------------
Looking Back at the Dry Season
------------------------------

2. With rainy season now underway, a look back at the 2008 dry
season shows a noticeable improvement in northern Thailand's
annual March and April air quality crisis from recent previous
years. The number of days when PM10 (small particles in the air
that can cause health problems)exceeded the hazardous threshold
(120 micrograms per cubic meter) decreased from 30 days in 2007
to only six days during the first five months of this year. The
peak PM10 volume in the air also dropped from the very high and
dangerous peak of 396 micrograms per cubic meter in 2007 to 206
micrograms per cubic meter in 2008.

--------------------------
Causes of Poor Air Quality
--------------------------

3. Agricultural burning, man-made forest fires, and vehicle
emissions are the primary sources of pollution in Chiang Mai,
said a local environmental official. Agricultural burning
remains the leading cause of air pollution. Although government
efforts to suppress the age-old slash and burn techniques of
northern Thai farmers have been partially successful
domestically (see para 7), burning of crop fields in Burma,
Laos, southern China, and Vietnam means this problem is a
regional one that is less easily fixed.

4. Vehicle emissions contribute the least to overall pollution
and are centralized in the urban Chiang Mai area. Also within
Chiang Mai, the geographic nature of the city as a river valley
nestled between mountain ranges means the immediate area traps
air with high PM10 content that cannot easily dissipate without
sufficient winds or rain.

-------------------------------------
Crop Burning Under High Global Prices
-------------------------------------

5. Crop burning, seen as the main cause of poor air quality in
March and April, is largely considered by farmers to be an
efficient and productive means of transitioning from the harvest
of the dry season to the initial planting of the rainy season.
One farmer told us that his wife would be angry if he stopped
burning for fear that a lower yield would result in low sales
and leave the family hungry.

6. Unfortunately, the recent spikes in the prices of
agricultural commodities has increased the propensity to burn
crop fields rather than to use the environmentally friendly
option of plowing and adding organic fertilizers. For poor
highland farmers who tend to grow corn because of the low cost
of necessary inputs, burning is viewed as a means of quick crop
turnover, which is important for this low income bracket. In
the rice sector, the appeal of high prices is pushing farmers to
be even more change-averse with regard to production methods.
Moreover, the high price of fuel makes plowing rather than
burning an unappealing option.

----------------------------
Government More Active . . .
----------------------------

7. With the aforementioned factors working against change in
agricultural practices, the provincial government has sought a
more active role in reducing crop burning. Its efforts to
reduce crop burning since 2007 are considered to be having a
positive impact, although the practice remains relatively
widespread. After last year's acute air quality crisis,
national and local level government committees were formed to
address the issue. The Chiang Mai governor led a campaign to
stop burning and to educate the public about the negative health
impact of the practice.


CHIANG MAI 00000091 002.2 OF 002


8. Chiang Mai is currently the only province in Thailand that
legally bans burning and makes the practice punishable by fine
or arrest. Enforcement is uneven, however. Strict enforcement
leads to angry farmers which means fewer votes for
locally-elected officials. So to keep enforcement more genteel,
officials relied on warnings and public notices against
burnings. Local officials told us that arrests for burning were
few in Chiang Mai, as villagers tended to cooperate with these
warning by law enforcement officers. However, many Chiang Mai
farmers reportedly avoided penalty by burning their fields at
night.

-----------------------------
. . . But Sends Mixed Message
-----------------------------

9. Chiang Mai's provincial government appeared to operate with a
different set of priorities when it came to advising the public
about unhealthy air threats. While this year Chiang Mai did see
a marked reduction in the frequency and intensity of hazardous
air days, the government elected not to issue public health
warnings during the peak period. Chiang Mai University radio
reported that the Governor pleaded with local media to "tone
down the air pollution situation" to avoid harming Chiang Mai's
lucrative tourism industry. At one point he publicly assured
tourists that the air quality was not a public health concern
this year.

--------------
No Smokey Bear
--------------

10. Forest fires are increasingly a major cause of pollution in
Chiang Mai, now accounting for 40% of the region's air
pollution, according to local officials. Almost always
man-made, these fires are ignited easily in the dry foliage of
mountainous areas as the tail end of the dry season. The fires
are purposefully set by minority hill tribes who believe that
burning the soil before the rainy season will generate a high
yield of wild mushrooms and edible plants that can be sold and
consumed locally. With these man-made fires taking place in
remote areas and being set by poor and isolated communities,
enforcement of the burning ban is costly. Moreover, there is no
Thai "Smokey Bear" campaign to dispel these ancient myths about
forest fires leading to more wild vegetation.

-------
Comment
-------

11. Chiang Mai can (safely) breathe a sigh of relief that it
survived a dry season with improved air quality conditions. The
provincial government's successful public awareness campaign
appears to have had a real positive impact, with the peak levels
of PM10 almost half of what they were last year. Nonetheless,
further progress in improving dry-season air quality will
require the region to address pollution sources beyond Thai
farmers; namely, burning in neighboring countries and man-made
forest fires in remote hill tribe communities.
MORROW

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