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PM2.5 has gained wide public awareness amongst Thais for nearly a decade. Many probably have questioned how much longer we need to live with the health crisis brought on by the annual recurrent problem of ultra-fine dust particles which the World Health Organization (WHO) claimed causes 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide each year.  

However, there have been positive signs from research, academic institutes, and startups in terms of increasing innovation and technology development to tackle the air pollution issues, one of which includes ‘Sensors for All’ project, a PM2.5 detector innovation from Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Engineering, which has been ongoing for three years.

Concerned about PM2.5 dust spikes, the faculty's innovation project has developed the low-cost sensors with higher precision and installed them around the university campus during its first year before the sensor system being expanded to residential areas under the National Housing Authority in the following year.

With the project entering its third year, the low-cost sensors have been installed at more than 600 locations nationwide with support from telecommunication service providers in terms of data transmission as well as public and private allies joining as the project’s strategic partners. The real-time data of air quality is now accessible via the project’s official website and mobile application.

Sensor for All mobile application

Speaking to Prof. Pisut Painmanakul, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Innovation Strategy at the Faculty of Engineering, Chulalongkorn University, who leads the Sensor for All project, he said the light-scattering sensors have been adopted to detect heavy amounts of PM2.5 particles, while the Pollution Control Department (PCD) measures concentrations of PM2.5 by applying the gravimetric method which determines the amount of PM2.5 per cubic meter of air based on weight difference of filters pre- and post-samplings.

Although the method involves a multiple-stage filter, controlling moisture and constant airflow to ensure the precision, Prof. Pisut opined that the process takes too much time which would not be the right choice for commuters during rush hours and with its high cost of installation, many locations have yet to be covered.

The innovation project that comes with the low-cost sensors, thus, fills the gap in terms of network expansion within local communities, leading to more accurate results in terms of calibration and verification of PM2.5 in line with the PCD’s standard.

The team’s efforts to better the air quality also include a machine learning with the aim to control PM2.5 data quality and import accurate data to the public. Now, the round-the-clock monitoring app can provide seven-day forecast of the PM2.5 levels, unlocking two major benefits for Thai society.

“This project helps people make better decisions whether to go out, to leave their windows open, or to burn [agricultural waste]. With such innovation, community members have been fed more accurate information. For example, when the hotspots in my neighborhood have become high, unlike nearby areas. The information sharing stimulates communication within the communities. These are two key benefits shown during the first two years of the project’s operation, and we are now expanding our sensor services as the project enters a third year,” Prof. Pisut said.

The project’s leader reiterated that emerging technologies with the capacity to collect, analyze, and communicate trusted information are expected to reshape the decision-making at all levels, ranging from individuals, communities, to corporate sector and policy makers. Soon, the Sensor for All project is set to expand its stations for a broader coverage. Prof. Pisut said the project’s goal is to install the low-cost sensors at 10,000 stations, about 1,500 – 2,000 of which will be in Bangkok with the hope that the sensors will be able to detect other types of tiny dust particles regulated by the Air Quality Index (AQI) such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and ozone (O3). 

Prof.Pisut Painmanakul and a low-cost sensor developed by Sensor for All.

On closer observation, he sees that the data derived from the Sensor for All echoed other findings that the open burning is a major source of PM2.5 atmospheric dust in Thailand.

“The open burning of solid waste and agricultural residues is the main source of pollution which is more serious than dust from heavy traffic. A significant increase of PM2.5 pollutants of up to 100 – 200 micrograms per cubic meter often comes from massive open burning.”

According to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand’s official website that refers to data from the PCD and the Ministry of Energy, all open burning activities are the primary sources of PM2.5 pollution in Thailand. The intentional burning of agricultural residues by farmers has been regarded as a key factor. Yet, academics and environmental non-profit organizations pointed out that the burning of agricultural land is a complicated issue which is closely linked to supply chain of large-scale agricultural businesses.

The report, entitled: “Forest, Maize, and Transboundary PM2.5 Pollution in the Mekong Sub-region between 2015 - 2020”, published by Greenpeace in April 2021, indicates that within the given period, 10.6 million rai of forest land in the Mekong Sub-region were converted to maize plantations, especially in the northern part of Laos, the Shan State of Myanmar, and the upper Northern Thailand. For the six years on average, one-third of fire hotspots in the Mekong sub-region are detected in maize farms, whereas two-thirds are in the forest areas. 

In line with the findings, another report, entitled: “Maize, Land Use Change, and Transboundary Haze Pollution” in 2020, also from Greenpeace, highlights levels of PM2.5 fine dust and transboundary flow of air pollution are greatly influenced by the growth of monoculture agriculture in Thailand and neighboring countries. In the same report, considerable evidence has proved that maize prices vary with respect to the number of fire hotspots. When there is a high demand for maize, there is also a higher number of hotspots.

As agricultural burning is part of the complicated structure of agricultural businesses, the question remains: How can we provide farmers with viable alternatives to burning?

Greenpeace found that when there is a high demand for maize, there is also a higher number of hotspots. (Photo by Serg64/Shutterstock)  

Among those who provide bold idea to solve the pollution crisis is Done Doo Dee, a social impact startup and the winning team of the Jump Thailand 2021, the online hackathon which was organized for the first time in Thailand under the theme “Innovation for Sustainable Air Quality” by AIS through its innovation unit Novel Engine Execution Team (NEXT).

Done Doo Dee developed a mobile application called “Defire” with the aim to reduce agricultural burning which releases greenhouse gases and worsens PM2.5 emissions. Their business model allows farmers to register via the mobile application to claim carbon credits. With satellite data, the app monitors and calculates carbon credits to be gained from farmers quitting open burning. The credits will later be traded to private companies to offset the carbon dioxide they release into the atmosphere. The companies will make payments to Defire, which will be converted into the so-called “carbon coin”. Farmers can redeem the coins for cash, fertilizers, and seeds. They can redeem the coins for installments of machines, tractors, or even guaranteed loans. At the end of the competition, the project is seeking farmers to help trial the new app to collect feedback for better services and products.

Defire’s business model

Mr. Theethus Rangkasiri, a team member of Done Doo Dee, shared his first-hand experience as a former social enterprise developer at the Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage who worked closely with maize farmers in northern province of Nan, saying local farmers don’t want to engage in open burning because they too need to inhale the smoke.

Maize production, he said, doesn’t leave local farmers with high profit. In their opinion, the open burning is the cheapest and fastest way to prepare their lands. Hiring workers or buying machines will entail more financial burden.

To Mr.Theethus, the air pollution won’t be fixed, unless underlying causes of economic wellbeing are mitigated. For instance, giving cash or the so-called carbon coins to farmers which is preferrable to convince them to give up open burning.

“We’re taught that with an empty stomach, forest will continue to disappear. The same logic is applied to the open burning issue. The farmers will be more mindful of the impacts on environment only when they have a full stomach,” Mr. Theethus said.

The developer team sets to launch the application later this year. The registered farmers should receive their first incentives by the end of 2022. The team has chosen Nan as the pilot province to start an app trial scheme with maize and rice farmers. Over the next 2-3 years, sugarcane which also causes open burning activities will be covered in the project’s second phase. The team is also planning to expand its user base across Southeast Asia since the air-pollution crisis doesn’t know boundaries.   

Thailand’s rise of innovation breakthroughs to beat air pollution

Sensor for All and Defire are among many examples that reflect efforts from academicians and experts in social enterprises who develop innovative solutions to the air pollution crisis rattling many parts of the country.

Assistant Professor Tanapon Phenrat, Ph.D., a senior expert at the Thailand Science Research and Innovation (TSRI) and a sub-committee member of the House of Representatives to tackle the air pollution problem said, the TSRI’s database shows that Thai researchers have been conducting studies and developing innovations to curb the pollution crisis, including the PM2.5 dust that remains up in the air on a continuous basis. Some anti-pollution projects have been implemented nationwide, while many initiatives are trialed as pilot projects or serve as models of testing.

As of now, according to Asst. Prof. Tanapon, as many as ten projects are categorized as innovation for identification and monitoring of dust such as satellites and sensors, while other projects are fit into the category of prevention and removal of dust which include face masks and air purifiers with many projects being developed to reduce excessive PM2.5 at its major sources.

While several studies and innovations have been developed in a bid to lower the stubborn PM2.5 levels caused by agricultural activities and traffic gridlock, Asst. Prof. Tanapon observed only a few studies and innovations that focus on PM2.5 concentrations from industry sector, saying innovations for preventive measures – sensors, face masks and air purifiers – are poised to outpace tech development to fix air pollution at its primary sources, which he considers is the most crucial element to solve the PM2.5 issues.

“The fight against air pollution needs five years, 10 years, or up to 15 years. My point is that this mission takes time. Let’s say that even if we have a very good government, a good governor, or a good prime minister, the problem cannot be solved within five years or in the blink of an eye. the dust particles will remain high for at least five years before fine dust levels reach safer levels. People will still be exposed to the health threats. PM2.5 is a carcinogen, a substance capable of causing cancer. So, when we talk about an innovation for risk reduction within a period of five years, low-cost sensors, face masks, air purifiers are the right answers, but I think the products are quite enough. There are many sensor platforms that need to be integrated. We’re adjusting and protecting ourselves well. Now, it is high time to deal with the crux of the pollution problems,” Asst. Prof. Tanapon said.

For the past years, controversy has flared up over long-held prioritization of economic growth over clean air protection in Thailand, but Asst. Prof. Tanapon has urged the public to look at a case study of the Clean Air Act in the US that has been enacted since 1970.

The US government has laid down strict guidelines to better curb air pollutants with specific objectives, clear order of operations and the need for accountability. After the enactment, the US still sees GDP growth while the air pollution, including levels of PM2.5 decreased significantly across the country.

“One enduring myth that says public health must be traded for GDP growth, and that we need to live with the pollution is all a bunch of lies. There is no such evidence and I have not seen any evidence to prove that we need to make the sacrifice that much.”

Innovation alone is not enough

Thai society sees innovations and advanced technologies surge to reduce PM2.5 air pollution, but many questions remain about how these innovations can make tangible changes, including whether additional mechanisms are needed.

Mr. Theethus from Defire admitted that unequal access to technology remains a challenge, especially among elderly farmers in remote places who aren’t tech-savvy. Due to this reason, Defire has adopted a hybrid approach in which advanced technology are employed while field staff communicate directly with target farmers and help keep the mechanisms on the ground operating normally during the initial phase of the project.

Yet, Thailand’s rural areas desperately need the government’s support to fill a gap left by unequal access to technologies and drive wider adoption of innovative technologies across all age groups.

“We might have seen a graphic depicting a group of people standing on boxes. To make these people with different heights see the same image right before their eyes, we must support them with additional boxes in different sizes. For people in remote places or those who have inadequate access to technology, they need larger boxes to gain access. In this case, the government can step in and fill a gap. These boxes reflect the government’s help and its potential to adopt a hybrid approach in which the government can provide on-site supports. In doing so, the government can help scale up the innovations developed by startups.” Mr. Theethus explained, adding that the state agencies and startups display good intentions and share a common goal of fixing the long-standing problems in society, but social impact startups work on the issues with emerging innovations that will fill gaps in measures from the government.

In order to accelerate innovation in the long run, Mr. Theethus suggested that the government should invest in social enterprises more, especially during the initial phase and amend laws and regulations to facilitate startup operations.

While Asst. Prof. Tanapon pointed out that innovation alone is not enough to fix the annual problem of air pollution that requires two other keys – the effectiveness of laws and accountability – of government officials and key polluters such as factories, car manufacturers, auto agents, and large-scale agricultural companies who need to regulate air pollutants emitted by farmers under their contracts.

The air pollution in Thailand starts with the lack of specific legislation on clean air, although iLaw states that there have been at least four drafts to improve the air quality since mid-2020 which were proposed by the Bhumjaithai Party and the Move Forward Party in the House of Representatives and two other civil society groups. However, only the action plan has been issued to guide the air pollution control in the country following the cabinet’s approval to put the PM2.5 war on the national agenda.

Thailand’s not the first country suffering with unhealthy air quality. Asst. Prof. Tanapon said many countries faced air pollution problems and solved them by enacting a specific and science-based law, holding the officials and polluters accountable by punishing them with budget reduction, fines, penalties, or disqualification of the factory license. But none of these punishments has happened in Thailand.

“Let’s take the PCD as an example. Have penalties been imposed on the PCD when concentrations of PM2.5 exceeds the safety standard? Has the PCD been held accountable? Or has the government, which is supported by the revenue from the people’s tax and has a large amount of budget for environmental management, though not as high as the budget for interior and defence, been held accountable? None of the state agencies face penalties, but polluters and the government organizations in charge of air quality control in the US can be held accountable, the authorities are able to identify when the dust problems will be over,” Asst. Prof. Tanapon shared his view.

Asst. Prof. Tanapon said in Thailand, it’s impossible to predict when or in which year Thai people won’t have to live a single day with concentrations of PM2.5 exceeding safety standard. Let’s assume 50 micrograms per cubic meter, which is the ‘safe level’ in the country’s air quality standards. “We have no idea, do we? But in the US, they do. The authorities can predict when the air pollution will be over and make an official announcement. If the problem is unlikely to be solved by the time, the US government will ask for timeline extension to fix the problem. But in Thailand, nobody knows. We simply do what we’ve been doing, so there is no accountability whatsoever.”

He went on to say, “Right now, our country doesn’t have laws on clean air. We have only national strategy on dust pollution. We have innovations but aren’t yet to be implemented at their full capacity and wide enough to cover the whole nation. There’s zero accountability among government organizations and polluters. Without these three factors, Thailand cannot address the air pollution problem.”

Wearing face masks not only protects people in Bangkok from coronavirus but also prevents them from inhaling air pollution caused by ultra-fine dust particles. (Photo by Tong2020/Shutterstock)  

When asked about lack of specific legislation on clean air and accountability to solve the air pollution problem, Atthapol Charoenchansa, director-general of the PCD said state agencies in Thailand have “key performance indicators” and there will be penalties for non-compliance such as budget cut for the next fiscal year if any organizations fail to meet their performance indicators.

Although many sectors have been pushing ahead with the clean air bills, Mr. Atthapol was worried about the law enforcement and means of compliance among state and private organizations as well as public.

“Most people still see the air pollution is only going to be prolonged because of the lack of specific legislation on clean air, but that’s not the case. What's more important, however, is the legality and enforcement.”

The director-general said the PM2.5 pollutants aren’t from the government, but “everyone in the society”. Thus, the law enforcement to control PM2.5 pollution greatly depends on the people’s readiness.

“Imagine if authorities issue a ban on open burning and any wrongdoer would be arrested. We can do it, but people would be in deep trouble and it can cause public anger in aftermath of PM2.5. This’ll be a major problem. When authorities look for ways to tackle problems, we look at the big picture and deal with the them until they have gradually improved. We aren’t fumbling,” said Mr. Atthapol.

However, Asst. Prof. Tanapon argued the authorities to look at the root causes of law enforcement failure, in response to comments made by the PCD’s director-general, saying Thailand can take note from several countries that successfully used laws to curb PM2.5 smog.

The holistic approach authorities should take to fight against severe haze that often blankets greater Bangkok and many other provinces is to initiate more incentive schemes, clarify procedures and provide advanced teach support to move towards a less pollution society, rather than enforcing control regulations.

Although the PCD’s director-general thought the PM2.5 sources are from everyone in the society, Asst. Prof. Tanapon begged to disagree since the state agencies have the power to command and carry out the projects that possibly cause severe air pollution. Here’s the example: construction, power plant, as well as import and sales of fossil fuel vehicles.

He said, authorities should promote greater social innovations and advanced technologies to support public in reducing massive dust pollution, along with inclusion and participation of people in decision-making processes as part of effort to approve or disapprove the projects that will have adverse environmental effects.

The government should also extend its support to public by granting full access to more information about availability of products and services that don’t contribute to toxic dust levels, while budget should be allocated specifically to the people to create more innovations or community-based projects to address PM2.5 and air quality problem since now only the government can utilize the budget, in contrast to the fact that the real power to suppress the PM2.5 problem is through the participation and action of the people.

 “Air pollution affects people and it’s true that we all have to fix the problem, but the authorities must grant us access to information, give us sufficient power in decision-making, and essential resources in doing so.”

Natthaporn Thaotagoo is a journalist for The Opener, working on social issues and international affairs. 

This report is supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

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