Firstly before getting into the grit on this subject I want to state up front that I am no expert on air pollution. I also don’t claim to have the answers to fix the issue. However in the last few months I have been personally affected by deteriorating air quality and I enjoy solving challenging problems. So here goes…
Chiang Mai, city of crafts and folk art
Chiang Mai is located in a picturesque valley carved into the hills around 700 km (435 miles) north of Bangkok. Founded in 1296 as the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, the old city is still surrounded by a moat, acting as a reminder of those past times. It’s a tourist destination known for its colourful hill tribes, markets full of crafts & folk art, and of course the surrounding mountains that parallel the eastern and western flanks of the valley.
The end of the rain season in October sees Chaing Mai at perhaps its most beautiful, and the lush green fauna balanced against the clear blue skies lasts through the winter to the start of the new year. It’s beyond those months when things change and if you have spent time in the valley between the months of February and April then you will have been exposed to what is known as the burning season. The clear air is soon replaced by a smog transforming Chiang Mai into a city that is comparable to one in a major industrial zone.
If you ask around around town what motivates the burning you’ll likey be given a few different reasons and it maybe the fact that it’s not down to one alone. There is money in it for some people, who burn forests to make it easier to find precious wild mushrooms to sell on to global markets. But the biggest contributor is likely from farmers who are burning crop waste such as corn husks and cobs that can’t be sold. How much are we talking? It’s hard to get exact numbers but as a guide the Chiang Mai Province known as Mae Chaem District, which has a land area of just over 2,500km², alone produces and burns over 37,000 tons of corncob waste every year. Burning one ton of waste produces 6.26 kg (13.8 lbs.) of smoke. So burning 37,000 tons produces 231,620 kg (105,281 lbs.) — and that’s only one state.
The health risks
I’ve spent a number of seasons living in the north of Thailand and for the most part have tried to ignore the inconvenience, somewhat to my own detriment I now realise, but with 2019 seeing Chiang Mai at the top of the Air Quality Index as the most polluted city globally on a number of occasions, I started to take note. I decided to do a little research and it’s somewhat chilling. One comment that has commonly rolled off my lips is ‘well, I don’t smoke cigarrettes so I’m sure my lungs can handle a couple of months of bad air’. But the reality is that’s not a good argument. A study published in the European Heart Journal in March this year found that air pollution caused an estimated 8.8 million extra deaths globally rather than the previously estimated 4.5 million. Co-author of the study, Professor Thomas Münzel, of the Department of Cardiology of the University Medical Centre Mainz in Mainz, Germany, said: “To put this into perspective, this means that air pollution causes more extra deaths a year than tobacco smoking, which the World Health Organization estimates was responsible for an extra 7.2 million deaths in 2015. Smoking is avoidable but air pollution is not!”
So yeh, the news isn’t great…but is there an alternative?
Each year when the burning starts you’ll see more complaints than ideas on social media, but maybe that’s understandable as this complex issue is both social and economical, involving behaviour that has been handed down over generations.
Fines have been introduced but it’s hard to see if that has had any affect other than to shift the burning calender back so the fires are lit with greater intensity before the March 1 ban. But ignorance can no longer be used as an excuse as the health issues have been widely publicised this year, through all forms of media. So what can be done?
I’ve been pondering an idea for sometime and before embarking on trying to design and then implement an ambitious environmental impact project, it seemed blogging and seeking opinion is a sensible first step. One of the best ways to incentivise behaviour change is by introducing rewards and remuneration.
At Task we are in the process of rolling out a program with Freeland.org to help protect Thailand’s tiger population. The concept is simple — provide mobile tasking activities to forestry workers and community people, in the case of Freeland it’s mirco-tasks designed to capture images and locations that hint at the presence of tigers or poaching activity, and reward those people for completing the work.
It’s a viable solution…why? Because smartphones are everywhere and people like to be rewarded for doing work on them — and for Freeland, their mission to protect tigers is achieved in a faster and more effective manner.
But how does this relate to the burning?
I was recently reading an article on Chiang Mai’s Rotary Club website where the author highlighted a number of activities that could replace the burning. By converting crop waste into any form of soil amendment, farmers can use it to restore their soil. And here are three ways that can be done:
- Mulch their crop waste — chop it into fine bits and sprinkle it across their fields;
- Compost their crop waste — mix it with other organic materials (manure, kitchen garbage) and allow it to decompose before adding it to their soil; and
- Biochar their crop waste — turn it into “super charcoal” which they can combine with mulch, compost or manure and add to their soil.
The activity alone is unlikely to be enough but by incentivising the farmers with rewards such as cash, Line credit, or even consumables including organic mushrooms, the behaviour may shift from burning to regenerating.
The project can be created on the Task platform and the rewards will be issued after the activities have been verified and stored in an immutable blockchain ledger. It’s an idea. Can it work, will it work? I don’t know, but often the right solution is derived during the process of trying to fix something.
Let me know what you thoughts on the subject by commenting or get in touch directly if you’d like to join the team.
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