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Thailand’s ticking time bomb: The slow violence of air pollution

Air pollution is one of Thailand’s most persistent problems, posing a severe threat to the country's economy and public health. While the government remains inactive, political and business elites have continued to amplify the problem and hinder the efforts of civil society. Read our latest by Siwat Varnakomola to understand the slow violence of air pollution in Thailand and why the Thai government must take an active stance.

Source: Thirasupa, C. (2023, February 2). A picture of air pollution in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city. Reuters.


Thailand's Toxic Air: A Looming Crisis

Air pollution has been a chronic issue in Thailand, with the problem becoming even more severe during the first quarter of this year. On March 29th, Chiang Mai, a prominent city in Thailand, was ranked as the most polluted city in the world by IQAir's World Quality Index. The concentration of particular matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) across the country was alarming, and the air quality levels were reported to be nearly reaching the "hazardous" level (IQAir, 2023). In the first week of March, air pollution was responsible for a staggering over two hundred thousand hospital admissions, as stated by Thailand's Ministry of Public Health (Marks & Lulitanonda, 2023).


Primarily stemming from the combustion of fossil fuels, industrial emissions, and agricultural burning concentrated in northern and northeastern regions, this persistent problem is posing significant consequences for both Thailand’s economy and human security (Marks & Miller, 2022). Not only have high concentrations of PM2.5 been associated with respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and premature deaths over the past years, but they have also led to the deterioration of the country’s economy and environment (Farrow et al., 2022; Mostafanezhad et al., 2021; Namcome & Tansuchat, 2021). Moreover, the effects of air pollution have also spilled over into neighbouring countries, posing a threat to their public health and environment.


Despite the severity of the problem, the Thai government's actions towards mitigating air pollution remain limited. Instead, civil society organisations such as the Thailand Clean Air Network, environmental activists, and academics have spearheaded efforts to address the environmental concern. Nevertheless, their efforts often encounter resistance from the government and Thai political and business elites (Marks & Miller, 2022; Rujivanarom, 2023).


This article aims to revisit the long-term consequences of Thailand's air pollution and shed light on the fact that these consequences, combined with administrative fragmentation and the coalition of Thai political and business elites, constitute a form of slow violence that will gradually corrode the nation's economy and public health over the next decades. The article will start by defining the concept of slow violence, followed by discussing the chronic and cross-border impacts of air pollution in Thailand and civil society efforts to mitigate the issue. It will conclude by outlining recommendations and emphasising that ineffective action on air pollution could lead to a ticking time bomb for Thailand's economy and public health.


The concept of slow violence and environmental issues

Grounded in Nixon (2011), the concept of slow violence provides a useful framework for understanding the socio-environmental repercussions of Thailand’s air pollution. Nixon (2011, p. 2) defines this term as “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all”. Unlike more immediate forms of violence, such as physical, mental, and catastrophic violence (Baird, 2020), Nixon’s slow violence emphasises the gradual and cumulative effects of environmental destruction, unfolding over extended periods. In this regard, the effects of slow violence may be “out of sight” for the broader public and are often neglected.


There are two key aspects of slow violence. One is that its effects tend to impact vulnerable populations impartially, such as indigenous communities, marginalised groups, and low-income families (Baird, 2020; Davies, 2022; Marks & Miller, 2022). Hence, it is inextricably linked to racial discrimination, inequality, and colonialism. To illustrate, Davies (2022) demonstrates how in Louisiana’s Cancer Valley, toxic substances are placed in close proximity to a low-income community predominantly inhabited by people of colour. Considering the state’s history of colonial violence and slavery, this instance of racial discrimination seems to reflect how the consequences of slow violence are intertwined with race and colonialism.


Another critical aspect of slow violence is the difficulty of attributing responsibility for its repercussions. In other words, the diffuse and gradual nature of slow violence makes it challenging to identify and trace its origins across time. For instance, the sources of toxic pollutants in air, water, and soil can be varied, stemming from industrial areas, transportation, and agricultural practices, making it difficult to hold any single entity accountable (Farrow et al., 2021). Similarly, the emissions of greenhouse gases could come from multiple sources worldwide, making it impossible to assign blame to any single actor (Nixon, 2011).


As will be demonstrated in the following part, the case of Thailand’s air pollution reflects the characteristics of slow violence. Not only does air pollution pose a long-term threat to the nation’s economy and public health, but it also affects disproportionately the vulnerable and marginalised communities nationwide.


Silent but deadly: The devastating effects of air pollution in Thailand

As global climate change has intensified over the past years, the slow violence of air pollution is becoming increasingly pronounced and severe in today’s Thailand. Its sources are varied, ranging from the combustion of fossil fuels, industrial emissions, and unsustainable agricultural practices, which are often referred to as slash-and-burn practised in the northern and northeastern parts of the country (Junpen et al., 2018; Marks & Miller, 2022; Mostafanezhad et al., 2021). To exemplify, Marks & Miller (2022, pp. 308-309) indicate that air pollution in Thailand originates from the significant surge in car ownership in Bangkok, which was subsidised by the government through the “first car buyer” scheme in 2012. Likewise, Junpen et al. (2018) demonstrate that the air pollutants are caused by the rice residue open-burning activities of Thai farmers, who believe that this approach would bring about positive effects on the yields.


The slow violence of air pollution in Thailand manifests in the gradual deterioration of public health, the environment, and the economy. Firstly, prolonged exposure to air pollution has been linked to a range of ailments, including respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular diseases, and premature deaths. According to Farrow et al. (2022), it is estimated that exposure to PM2.5 over an extended period in their studied provinces resulted in approximately 29,000 premature deaths in 2021. As a result, the mortality rate linked to PM2.5 is greater than the combined mortality rate of road accidents, drug use, and homicide in Thailand. Moreover, Mostafanezhad et al. (2021) indicate that the crop-burning activities in northern rural areas from January to April are associated with the loss of livelihood, heightened fatality rates, and hospital admissions. Marks and Miller (2022) further suggest that Thai citizens, such as informal street vendors and street sweepers who are socio-economically disadvantaged and do not have private health insurance, are more susceptible to being exposed to pollution from roads, highlighting how the impacts of this slow violence are distributed unequally.


Secondly, the high levels of pollutants in the air can damage ecosystems, reduce agricultural yields, and contribute to climate change. Although it seems difficult to track the exact figure of air pollutant emissions in Thailand due to the absence of an Emissions Inventory database and limited access to official data, its impact on the environment is well-documented (Kumar et al., 2020; Marks & Miller, 2022; Narita et al., 2019). As Narita et al. (2019) demonstrate, air pollution has led to the acidification of soil and water bodies, which has ripple effects on aquatic ecosystems, soil productivity, and crop yields. This is because air pollutants like PM2.5 and nitrogen oxides can dissolve in rainwater and fall to the ground, which then contaminates soil and water surface. Crucially, the socio-environmental consequences described above have worsened the concern regarding the economic costs of air pollution in Thailand.


Thirdly, the economic costs associated with air pollution include increased healthcare expenses, loss of productivity, and potential damage to tourism – a vital sector in Thailand's economy. According to Attavanich (2021), in 2019, PM2.5 air pollution in Thailand resulted in a social cost of approximately 2.17 trillion Thai baht, which accounted for over ten per cent of the country's gross domestic product for that year. More specifically, Nancome and Tansuchat (2021) assess the impact of PM2.5 pollution on the figure of tourists in Chiang Mai and Bangkok using the data between 2014 and 2018, indicating that the PM2.5 problem is associated with a decrease in the number of tourists. The consequences of PM2.5 pollution vary across different time periods, particularly in April and May, Thailand’s high seasons. They point out that a five per cent increase in the PM2.5 index above the monthly average contributed to a decrease of over 100,000 tourists in Chiang Mai and almost 660,000 tourists in Bangkok. Consequently, the decline in tourist arrivals in April and May was estimated to result in economic opportunity losses amounting to “476.27 and 4,105.13 million baht,” respectively (Namcome and Tansuchat, 2021, p. 31). Taken together, these studies agree that the air pollution problem has adverse effects on the country’s economy. If unaddressed, this slow violence will continue to harm the national economy in the long term.


Notwithstanding, these harmful repercussions are still overlooked by the majority of the Thai population, with only a handful of groups, such as those directly affected, environmental activists, academics, and, interestingly, Thai youth, acknowledging their severity. Despite the government's limited action, civil societies in Thailand have taken a leading role in addressing air pollution and advocating for the prioritisation of mitigation efforts. As a result, there has been a growing demand for the implementation of a Clean Air Act, which will be discussed in the following section.


Clean Air Act: Thailand's battle against slow violence

Over the past few years, Thai civil societies have been collaborating to alleviate air pollution while concurrently demanding that the government take more rigorous measures. The Clean Air Act, also known as the Clean Air Bill, offers solutions to tackle the root causes that have hindered the resolution of the public health problem caused by air pollution (Rujivanarom, 2023). Not only does it establish the people’s right to clean air, constating the obligation for the state to guard this right, but it also contains economic policies which may incentivise the current nation’s top polluters to minimise their emissions (Marks & Lulitanonda, 2023).


However, the government and political and economic elites oppose the Bill. Scholars like Marks and Miller (2022) and Nikam et al. (2021) concur on the reasons behind this opposition. They argue that the proposed Bill's contents conflict with the laws of other government ministries and question the authority of certain state agencies. Furthermore, the interests of various businesses would also be impacted by the proposed alterations. To illustrate, the Clean Air Act, proposed before the parliament on 13 March 2019, involves measures to limit industrial emissions, which are bound to negatively affect the profitability of the country’s major corporations (Rujivanarom, 2023). Thus, this Act was declared unacceptable by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and was subsequently dropped (Marks & Lulitanonda, 2023). Spearheaded by Thailand Clean Air Network, the Clean Air Bill was submitted to the parliament again in 2020, with over fifty thousand people signing the petition to support it. Nevertheless, it has yet to pass deliberation (Rujivanarom, 2023).



Source: Angskul, T. (January 24, 2020). Thai people demonstrate for the right to clean air. National News Bureau of Thailand.


Furthermore, several interrelated obstacles to the mitigation of the air pollution conundrum should be highlighted. One of them lies in the nation’s administrative fragmentation (Marks & Miller, 2022; Nikam et al., 2021). The government institutions and those Offices that are responsible for the environment often operate independently, resulting in limited and ineffective policy implementation. According to Nikam et al. (2021), the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is responsible for managing the air quality in the country, but its scope is limited, as other ministries, such as the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Industry, have significant influence over industries that contribute to air pollution. What is more, the complex and bureaucratic nature of the Thai government often retards the decision-making process, impeding a rapid response to emerging environmental crises (Nikam et al., 2021).


Another obstacle is the resistance from a coalition of political and business elites (Marks & Miller, 2022; Nikam et al., 2021), as these groups are more concerned with protecting their own interests rather than prioritising the common good. Marks and Miller (2022) demonstrate that the political and business elites in Thailand tend to commute long distances by car from affluent suburbs to city centres instead of using public transportation. Hence, they have a vested interest in keeping vehicle taxes low and have indefinitely postponed the implementation of pollution taxes.


As such, these obstacles perpetuate the slow violence of air pollution in Thailand, posing a direct threat to Thailand’s economy and public health. Thereby, transcending these impediments while also encouraging public participation is required to effectively address and preclude the escalation of air pollution in Thailand in the future.


Conclusion

Air pollution has been a persistent problem in Thailand, originating from multiple sources and posing a severe and consistent threat to the country's economy and public health. However, the gradual and cumulative nature of its impacts has led to its ramifications being largely overlooked. Furthermore, this form of slow violence is perpetuated by the country’s administrative fragmentation and resistance from political and business elites, who, in fact, are responsible for much of the air pollution nationwide.


If left unaddressed, air pollution will undeniably threaten the country's long-term development and prosperity, becoming a ticking bomb. To alleviate the adverse effects efficaciously, immediate and concerted efforts from all sectors of society are quintessential, with the government taking the lead.


As a Thai youth, the provision of clean air emerges as a fundamental human right, transcending socioeconomic boundaries. It seems far from justifiable that only the privileged one per cent of society can breathe clean air. Thus, it is quintessential for people at all levels of society to work together towards a future wherein clean air becomes a reality for all.


This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.


 

References

Attavanich, W. (2021). Willingness to pay for air quality in Thailand: An analysis of multiple pollutants. Bangkok: Department of Economics, Faculty of Economics, Kasetsart University.


Baird, I. G. (2021). Catastrophic and slow violence: thinking about the impacts of the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam in southern Laos. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 48(6), 1167-1186. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2020.1824181


Davies, T. (2022). Slow violence and toxic geographies: ‘Out of sight’ to whom? Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 40(2), 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1177/2399654419841063


Farrow, A., Anhauser, A., & Moun-Ob, A. (2022). The burden of air pollution in Thailand. Greenpeace. https://www.greenpeace.org/static/planet4-southeastasia-stateless/2022/06/67375e28-the-burden-of-air-pollution-in-thailand_2021.pdf


IQAir. (March 29, 2023). Air quality and pollution city ranking. Accessed on March 29, 2023. https://www.iqair.com/th-en/world-air-quality-ranking


Junpen, A., Pansuk, J. Kamnoet, O., Cheewaphongphan, P., & Garivait, S. (2018). Emission of air pollutants from rice residue open burning in Thailand, 2018. Atmosphere, 9(11), 449. https://doi.org/10.3390/atmos9110449


Kumar, I., Bandaru, V., Yampracha, S., Sun, L., & Fungtammasan, B. (2020). Limiting rice and sugarcane residue burning in Thailand: Current status, challenges and strategies. Journal of Environmental Management, 276, 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2020.111228


Marks, D. & Miller, M. A. (2022). A transboundary political ecology of air pollution: Slow violence on Thailand's margins. Environmental Policy and Governance, 32(4), 305-319. https://doi.org/10.1002/eet.1976


Marks, D. & Lulitanonda, W. (2023, March 13). PM2.5: Endless deja vu in Thailand. Bangkok Post. https://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/2526290/pm2-5-endless-deja-vu-in-thailand


Mostafanezhad, M. & Evrard, O. (2021). Chronopolitics of crisis: A historical political ecology of seasonal air pollution in northern Thailand. Geoforum, 124, 400-408. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2020.05.011


Namcome, T. & Tansuchart, R. (2021). The impact of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) on the number of foreign tourists in Chaing Mai and Bangkok. Rajabhat Chiang Mai Research Journal, 22(3), 19-35. https://doi.org/10.14456/rcmrj.2021.247437


Narita, D., Oanh, N. T. K., Sato, K., Huo, M., Permadi, D. A., Chi, N. N. H., Ratanajaratroj, T., & Pawarmart, I. (2019). Pollution characteristics and policy actions on fine particulate matter in a growing Asian economy: The case of Bangkok metropolitan region. Atmosphere, 10(5), 227. https://doi.org/10.3390/atmos10050227


Nikam, J., Archer, D. & Nopsert, C. (2021). Regulating air quality in Thailand: A review of policies. SEI policy brief. Stockholm Environment Institute. https://www.sei.org/publications/regulating-air-quality-in-thailand-a-review-of-policies/


Nixon, R. (2011). Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Rujivanarom, P. (2023, March 19). Hoping for a breath of fresh air. Bangkok Post. https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/special-reports/2531351/hoping-for-a-breath-of-fresh-air


Thailand Clean Air Network. (2020). Clean air blue paper: Insights on the impacts of air pollution and its root causes. Bangkok: Thailand Clean Air Network. https://thailandcan.org/Clean_Air_Blue_Paper_EN.pdf




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