- Citizens in northern Thailand have mounted a legal challenge against the prime minister and several government departments for inaction to tackle air pollution that experts say reduces people’s life expectancy and violates basic human rights.
- Air pollution levels in the northern city of Chiang Mai exceeded WHO guideline standards more than twentyfold earlier this year, ranking it among the most polluted places in the world.
- The sources of pollution are mainly from agricultural burning, both locally and in neighboring countries, a practice that coincides each year with the dry season. Air quality is also affected by forest fires that have taken a toll on the region’s landscapes and wildlife in recent years.
- Observers say the legal challenge is an example of civil society’s growing awareness of the right to use litigation avenues to hold companies and government departments accountable to their environmental commitments.
A court in northern Thailand has agreed to hear a citizen-led lawsuit filed against the government for inaction to address air pollution that experts say reduces people’s life expectancy and constitutes a violation of basic human rights.
More than 1,700 plaintiffs, including activists, academics, residents and medical professionals submitted the grievance against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the National Environmental Board (NEB) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) at the Chiang Mai Administrative Court on April 10, 2023.
The lawsuit alleges that authorities have failed to adequately address recurring seasonal haze that plagues northern provinces between February and April every year. Air pollution levels typically far exceed guideline levels set by the World Health Organization (WHO) during these months at the height of the dry season, only abating once monsoon rains arrive in April-May and flush the pollutants from the air.
“We have more risk of breathing-related health problems compared to people who don’t live with the [air pollution] problems for two to three months per year,” Kornkanok Wathanabhoom, an independent legal researcher and a member of the legal team representing the citizen plaintiffs, told Mongabay. “Children are also affected as during those months they cannot do any outdoor activities, so it violates their rights to life.”
The sources of the haze are mainly from agricultural burning, both locally and in neighboring countries such as Laos and Myanmar, as farmers use controlled blazes to burn undergrowth stubble and fertilize their maize, sugarcane and rice fields.
Forest fires are also a problem. The prolonged months of dry, still weather turn normally green forest vegetation tinder-dry and flammable. Errant sparks from lightning, discarded cigarettes, abandoned campfires or intentional burning of leaf litter to collect mushrooms can trigger an out-of-control inferno. In recent years, such forest fires have taken a toll on human lives and the region’s landscapes and wildlife, including species of conservation concern.
In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs request that the prime minister take serious steps to improve air quality and ensure the rights of citizens to clean and healthy air. They also ask the NEB to do more to implement a government action plan established in 2019 to tackle the crisis.
An additional claim against the SEC for failing to examine the sources of particulate pollutants within industry supply chains was dismissed by the court in late April on the grounds that government authorities had already instructed relevant agencies to take requisite action. The plaintiffs filed an appeal on the ruling on May 18.
Air quality among worst in the world
The effects of the air pollution are particularly severe in Chiang Mai, a city that sits within a bowl-like valley surrounded by mountains, a topography that causes polluted air to settle and stagnate above the city. Early 2023 saw readings of PM2.5 particulate matter, considered hazardous to human health, reach 117 micrograms per cubic meter in Chiang Mai, a level more than 23 times the average safe limit prescribed by the WHO, ranking it among the most polluted cities in the world.
PM2.5 is a class of airborne pollutants so fine that they can be inhaled into the lungs. Rangsarit Kanchanawanit, a medical professional at Chiang Mai University, recently told local media that prolonged exposure to PM2.5 air pollution heightens people’s risk of developing lung cancer, heart disease and stroke, and can shorten life spans by four to five years.
Besides the health risks, the extreme levels of pollution violate people’s basic human rights, Kornkanok told Mongabay. Last year, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a declaration affirming that access to clean air as part of a healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right — a resolution that Thailand voted in favor of. While the accord is not legally binding, it encourages governments around the world to take urgent necessary action and empowers citizens to hold their leaders to account.
“We have to buy masks and air purifiers,” Kornkanok said. “But we think ‘why do we, the affected people, have to pay for these measures to protect our own health?’ And what about people who cannot afford [these measures]?” In this way, the lack of action to address the underlying causes of the pollution means many rural poor households are disproportionately affected, both financially and in terms of their health.
Toward sustainable solutions
Given Thailand’s support of the U.N. declaration and eagerness to publicly show consideration of human rights issues in high-profile moves in recent years, Kornkanok said it was high time the government rolled out policies and programs to tackle air pollution.
Authorities earlier this year adjusted Thailand’s 24-hour national air quality standard to be more in line with international standards, but it remains more than double the WHO guideline at 37.5 μg/m3 for PM2.5. The WHO considers exposure to harmful PM2.5 particles at concentrations of more than 15 μg/m3 over a 24-hour period and a yearly average of 5 μg/m3 as unhealthy.
A major stumbling block to addressing the source of the haze is its transboundary nature. Air pollution drifts into Thailand from fields burning in neighboring Myanmar and Laos. NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System map, which tracks active fires and thermal anomalies, showed nearly 30,000 hotspots in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand during April 2023.
Kornkanok noted that Thai companies that buy agricultural products, such as maize for animal feed, from across the border are implicitly connected to this transboundary haze. “You can see the pollution hotspots from Myanmar and Laos,” she said, “but [as Thai citizens], we cannot ask the Myanmar government or the Laos government to do anything. So we try to ask the Thai government to take action.”
When it comes to solutions, Kornkanok said care must be taken not to worsen the poverty trap that many smallholder farmers find themselves in. Blanket burning bans simply don’t work without realistic and affordable alternative means of farming, she said. Sustainable solutions that center around public participation and the protection of rural livelihoods are key. “We don’t need policies that necessitate people to leave their homes in the forests or to leave their [rural] livelihoods,” she said.
Change on the horizon
Following Thailand’s general election last month and the prospect of a new administration, change might be on the horizon. Kornkanok said she hopes the future leaders will pay more heed to human rights and the need for public participation in policy decision-making.
“Air pollution is not only a problem for northern people, there are similar issues elsewhere in the country,” Kornkanok said. “Maybe the incoming government could have more dialogue with neighboring countries to tackle transboundary haze, or have new regulations to reduce the haze within [Thailand].”
William Schulte, Mekong policy and legal adviser at EarthRights International, said the legal challenge represents the growing awareness among citizens of using public interest litigation to hold companies and government departments accountable to their environmental commitments.
“Thailand is the only country in the Mekong region that has an administrative court that can issue decisions against the government,” Schulte told Mongabay, “so it gives me hope [that] people are seeing public litigation as a potential avenue to protect their rights.”
Banner image: Plaintiffs, including regional academics and medical professionals submit the citizen lawsuit at the Chiang Mai Administrative Court in April 2023. Image courtesy of Wanna Tamthong
Carolyn Cowan is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @CarolynCowan11.
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