BANGKOK — The monsoons are not lashing Bangkok, in that soggy season when my sons generally need to wade by waist-high floods to get to soccer follow.
So why did I get soaked final week, as I walked alongside a serious avenue within the Thai capital?
The liquid, which quickly flooded certainly one of Bangkok’s busiest intersections, got here from water cannons geared toward assuaging the smog that has shrouded Bangkok for weeks.
Pedestrians squealed because the plumes of water shot into the air. A vendor of coconut ice cream didn’t cease his pushcart from careening right into a sewer. A rat scurried, then swam.
Some of the large hoses had been related to vehicles that solely contributed to the dangerous air afflicting Bangkok. Smoke spewed from the vehicles’ exhaust pipes. Officials from Thailand’s Pollution Department estimate that automobile emissions account for roughly 60 p.c of town’s chemical haze.
A decade in the past, the Thai capital was a rarity in Asia, a spot the place the air had gotten cleaner largely due to a ban on essentially the most polluting automobiles. Those days are gone.
Earlier this month, Bangkok cracked the listing of the highest 10 cities with the foulest air on the planet.
My sons’ college, like greater than 400 throughout the Thai capital, will likely be closed on Thursday and Friday due to the smog.
Like many Asian megalopolises, which crowd the catalog of the world’s most polluted cities, Bangkok suffers from a poisonous amalgam: unchecked industrialization and urbanization, a car-crazy populace and lax regulation. The burning of fallow fields and a dry season with little wind exacerbate the disaster.
Even as air pollution management screens say they’re eliminating the dirtiest diesel engines, a stroll on a Bangkok street could be a choking expertise. City buses belch murky smoke. There are too many vehicles for too few roads, and too little curiosity in public transportation.
“In our society, a car is not just a car,” stated Tara Buakamsri, the Thailand nation director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia. “It’s a representation of affluence and a symbol of ownership. It will be very hard to get people to give up their cars.”
Having lived for a few years in China, my household is properly acquainted with soiled air.
I used to joke that we left Beijing in 2014 as air pollution refugees. I had uninterested in strapping little face masks on our boys simply so they might commute to highschool. On many days they couldn’t play outdoors in any respect.
The smiling panda patterns on their masks couldn’t disguise the truth that advantageous particulate matter is especially corrosive for youngsters’s lungs.
The World Health Organization says outside air air pollution prompted four.2 million untimely deaths in 2016, claiming much more lives yearly than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria mixed.
We moved from Beijing to Shanghai simply because the air there acquired worse. A few years in the past, I didn’t notice that our dishwasher had caught fireplace and was sending smoke all through the home as a result of every little thing was already so murky from the air pollution.
Then we moved to Bangkok. Like China, Thailand appears to be going by the identical cycle: denial of a power drawback, ineffectual options after which a sudden realization that the chemical miasma isn’t going to magically disappear with out coordinated insurance policies.
For years, Beijing residents spoke of fog reasonably than smog. When the fact lastly hit, the federal government thought of some outlandish concepts, like utilizing large followers to blow the air pollution out of city.
Scientists agree that spraying jets of water, particularly from polluting vehicles, will do little to disperse Bangkok’s smog.
“There are some government agencies that want to help decrease the pollution, but maybe this is not the best thing,” stated Pralong Dumrongthai, the director basic of the Pollution Control Department of Thailand, in a fragile evaluation of the water cannon remedy.
Nor will different unorthodox strategies — like water-spraying drones which have been deployed in current days in Bangkok — repair the power air drawback.
Even as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand, the pinnacle of the navy junta that seized management of the nation in 2014, performed down Bangkok’s air pollution, shopkeepers had been advised they could possibly be liable to as much as seven years in jail for hoarding masks.
The persistent smog has turn into a rallying cry for some folks in Bangkok, the place the aftermath of years of coups, avenue protests and armed forces crackdowns has made town appear, at the very least outwardly, an apolitical place.
The present junta has repeatedly postponed nationwide elections — the newest date is about for March 24 — but there was little mass outrage expressed in regards to the sluggish return to a nominal democracy.
Years of restrictions on free speech and assembly by the National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta is known, have had their effect, even if young people are eager to cast their first-ever ballots.
But the spike in air pollution has been front-page fare here — eclipsing the news trickling out earlier this month about the bodies of two exiled Thai dissidents found by the Mekong River, their abdomens stuffed with concrete blocks.
News of the murders was buried in much of the local news media. Instead, editorials demanded answers from the junta about the unhealthy air.
In China, pollution became a proxy for discontent that could not be expressed in other ways. People began to question the implicit pact made with their authoritarian leaders: We’ll improve your material life, but don’t question how you are ruled.
But what if double-digit growth rates result in a poisoned earth and air? Many Chinese began a national rethink.
Here, too, ordinary citizens are criticizing the junta for its slow response to the pollution, even if they might not speak out on other political issues.
For all that lures tourists to Bangkok — orchids, cheap massages, mango and sticky rice — this is not a city that pampers its residents. Proper pavements are a rarity. Tangles of power lines dangle dangerously. A profusion of plastic bags chokes canals and ever-expanding trash heaps.
Much of the fauna that flourishes, like cockroaches, rats the size of cats and the occasional python snaking in through a toilet, is of the alarming variety.
Yet Bangkok’s charms are undeniable.
Even in the ugliest agglomeration of concrete, a spray of bougainvillea pushes its way through the cracks. Spirit houses adorned with offerings of red Fanta soda nourish the city’s soul. Dusty ficus trees are wrapped with ribbons, as if their ability to flourish in such a dense urban setting is a gift to the 10 million people who call the metropolitan area home.
As I was flying back to Bangkok this month, my heart sank as the plane descended into an ocher haze. It was the same feeling of dread I had when returning to China. In the taxi home, my driver was wearing a mask. He shook his head at the bad air. Almost immediately, we got stuck in traffic.
But, like many drivers in Bangkok, he had hung a garland of jasmine on the rearview mirror. The sweet scent mixed with the exhaust fumes. I was home.
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