CHIANG MAI: Thailand's prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Tuesday (Apr 2) gave the smog-hit northern city of Chiang Mai seven days to crack down on its spiralling pollution problem.
The city has far eclipsed other notorious pollution hotspots since Sunday, with the level of dangerous microscopic particles known as PM2.5 peaking at 480, according to the latest figures provided by the Air Quality Index. Any level over 300 is classed as hazardous.
By contrast, the reading in the Indian capital of New Delhi peaked at 228, while Beijing reached only 161.
The pollution crisis in Chiang Mai has seen residents, street vendors and monks donning surgical face masks and at least two universities cancelling classes.
Crop burning during the dry season has long been blamed for poor air quality, but the smog has been exacerbated by growing industrialisation and rising numbers of vehicles on the roads.
Prayut, on a visit to Chiang Mai, demanded a clampdown on crop burning.
"I want to reiterate that the problem of hotspots (crop burning areas) must be solved in seven days," said the leader of the military government, who is angling to become the elected civilian prime minister.
"Nobody should ignite fires in the forest," he said.
Crop burning is normally restricted for two months in the dry season to try to curb pollution, but it remains widespread.
The smog is worse this year because of a drought and more illegal burning, said Sate Sampattagul, head of the Climate Change Data Center at Chiang Mai University.
Chiang Mai is also especially vulnerable because it is surrounded by mountains that trap the pollution.
Olivier Evrard, a Thailand-based specialist for the Institute of Research for Development, said crop burning was not the only culprit.
"The government has encouraged the population to buy more vehicles and coal plants are still running at full speed," Evrard said.
A total of nine provinces are affected by the smog as the northern city of Chiang Rai prepares to host the ASEAN Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors' meeting.
Face masks have been prepared for the event, Nadhavudh Dhamasiri, a senior Finance Ministry official, told Reuters.
About 300 officials are expected for the meeting, with some participants already arriving. There are no plans to change the meeting venue or schedules, officials said.
"The dust situation is improving and has not affected the meeting schedules," Nadhavudh added.
Sophon Thongdee, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment told the Bangkok Post that Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn said the problem has escalated beyond the provincial authorities' power.
"The government should take action, including on behalf of all the volunteers so they can join hands to deal with the problem," Thongdee added.
The seasonal duration of the haze, which used to last for about three months, has now increased to six months, according to Chaicharn Pothirat, a lung disease specialist at Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Medicine.
The long-term effects include an increase in respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, he said, adding that he is sceptical the government has any "long-term plan" good enough to tackle the problem.
Earlier this year, the Thai capital Bangkok was also hit by bad smog, which led to school closures for three days.