Bangkok is choking as military drones and fire trucks fight to bring air pollution under control. Schools have closed, people are encouraged to stay indoors and others have armed themselves with face masks.
Meanwhile, the government has asked citizens to come up with more effective solutions.
Serious air pollution in major Asian cities has become the norm in recent years – so much so that residents, visitors and policymakers now take the situation for granted.
But deteriorating health of city-dwellers forces us to pay heed to the growing consequences of an air-pollution crisis.
Toxic air in Bangkok prompted the Cambodian embassy to urge its citizens here to either return home or take extra measures to guard their health if they stayed.
Complacency in Bangkok has blended with dust from mushrooming condominiums and mass transit construction. The wind dropped off in December and toxic particles settled like a shroud over the city.
It’s becoming clear that urbanisation in our region and the rest of Asia comes with incalculable human costs.
New Delhi and Beijing have long suffered pollution and are taking steps to tackle the issue, but Southeast Asians have yet to respond as their own cities disappear under haze.
One obstacle to remedial action is the inter-connected nature of air pollution in our region. Annual fires in Indonesia from burning of peat result in smoke spreading to Singapore and Malaysia.
But the scale of the problem in Bangkok this year has shocked people in the region, even as they hope it won’t spread to their own countries.
Bangkok is now among the world’s top 10 most air-polluted cities. Fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) has exceeded the safety limit of 185 micrograms per cubic metre (mcg/m3) for weeks in several areas of the capital.
PM2.5 readings measure the concentration of tiny particles less than 2.5 mcg/m3 in diameter – about one-30th the diameter of a human hair. Long-term exposure to hazardous PM2.5 levels has been linked to increased risk of death from cancer and heart disease.
PM2.5 levels of 101-150 mcg/m3 can damage the health of those with underlying conditions or sensitivity to pollution.
When PM2.5 levels reach 151-200 mcg/m3, the air is considered unhealthy, and humans can start to feel sick.
Needless to say, the Land of Smiles has lost much of its charm after city-dwellers were forced to wear face masks.
Other regional capitals should take heed.
In Hanoi, air monitoring stations have recorded dangerously high levels of pollution in recent years. The PM2.5 concentration in Vietnam’s capital recently hit 400 mcg/m3 in some areas, particularly along the busy Pham Van Dong Street.
Jakarta, where a construction boom is underway, is almost certain to be next on the list. Since 2016, the PM 2.5 in the city’s air has regularly exceeded the City Hall standard of 15 mcg/m3.
In Manila, the problem is not considered as serious, though concern about air quality is growing among residents of the city.
Kuala Lumpur and Singapore figure among the world’s top 100 most liveable cities for Asian expatriates, but experts warn that toxic air could be an issue in the future.
With other Asean cities growing fast, air quality is an issue that will spread to all corners of the region.
Brunei’s capital of Bandar Seri Begawan could be an exception thanks to its relatively small population of 100,000, but the giants of Southeast Asia will find it increasingly difficult to breathe. Phnom Penh, Vientiane and Yangon are growing fast and must take serious measures now to avoid the fate of Bangkok.
Cambodia’s Environment Ministry says the average PM 2.5 level in Phnom Penh is 35.36 mcg/m3. However, the number of residents has risen past 1.5 million, with construction sites springing up and more vehicles on the road every year. The same trends can be witnessed in Vientiane and Yangon.
At a glance, the air quality in most of the region’s capitals may seem adequate. But, as Bangkok shows, it can quickly get dangerously polluted.
A region-wide approach to tackle the issue is needed, with coordination between policymakers in the worst-hit areas – Asean’s capital cities.
The writer is assistant editor-in- chief at Rasmei Kampuchea Daily in Cambodia.
The Asian Writers’ Circle is a series of columns on global affairs written by editors and columnists from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers and websites across the region.