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Pollution won't fix itself

Fine dust has been a long-standing nightmare for Bangkok residents at this time of the year.

This week the city witnessed a rise in dust levels in several districts that were harmful to residents’ health.

In response to the problem, Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt has vowed to curb vehicle exhaust while calling on construction projects and industrial factories to follow dust control guidelines.

While the governor may have opened a “war room on dust”, he has ruled out any effort to approach the issue of wind that contributes to the problem, as “the city hall has no authority” in that area.

This is unfortunate.

Combating killer dust requires bold policies and tough action yet the governor’s approach to the problem is too passive, and it will not lead to success.

With such a limited scope, Mr Chadchart is no different from his predecessor, Aswin Kwanmuang, who failed in PM2.5 dust management for five years.

At the end of his tenure, Mr Aswin just sat on the problem, waiting for the rains to wash away the fine particles and a change of season so the air stagnation would come to an end.

Mr Chadchart is a bit luckier as it seems the dust phenomenon started late this year, probably because there were rains which alleviated the situation.

Some critics, however, have lambasted his war room idea, saying it is only a PR stunt, while the problem actually is not being solved.

There have been allegations of negligence, with concerns that there has been a failure to regulate construction sites, particularly an infamous project in Don Muang district.

It’s not totally wrong that the governor wants to focus on transport, but the fact is this sector involves several agencies. For instance, engine exhaust is not really under City Hall’s jurisdiction — it’s the job of the Land Transport Department.

What needs to be done is to cut back the car numbers on the streets, but this will not happen as long as the city bus service, which is the job of the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA), is not as efficient as it needs to be.

Mr Chadchart is failing to make electric train fares cheaper — which was an election campaign promise — so commuters are not incentivised to leave their cars at home.

Fares must be affordable for residents so that the city administration can implement tough measures on those wanting to use private cars.

At the same time, Mr Chadchart should pay attention to the aforementioned wind factor since it’s known that the city’s high-rise buildings may be a culprit in aggravating air stagnation and smog patterns.

He must rethink this, and look into the possibility that such factors be included in environmental impact assessment (EIA) study reports and be a condition for building permit issuance.

It should be noted that the Pollution Control Department earlier this year revised a regulation when they made the PM2.5 safety standards 37.5 per microgrammes per cubic metre (µg/m³) per 24-hour average. The annual average will be only 15 from 25 µg/m³.

The standard currently is a 24-hour average of 50 µg/m³ which is twice the World Health Organization’s 25 µg/m³ threshold.

The new standard will become effective next May, but there are questions on how it can be realised, when state agencies, like the city administration, keep a business-as-usual work approach.

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