Wednesday, March 21, 2007

UN scuttling from Northern Thailand's haze

The smoke/haze pollution seems to have no let up in Northern Thailand. Now the UN refugee agency is evacuating personnel who are having breathing problems.
I feel for those stuck with nowhere to run to for fresh clean air. The whole of the north needs a good storm with fierce winds to disperse the crud.
I'm heading into it next Monday... and can't put it off any longer. I'll take some masks with me, I think.

Bangkok Post: Northern haze too much for UN
Northern haze too much for UN
By Cheewin Sattha

The UN refugee agency and other international organisations based in Mae Hong Son province are evacuating officials and families with respiratory problems - and may evacuate entirely.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which cares for Karen refugees living in camps in the northern province, said it has plans to evacuate all staff if haze caused by forest fires is not brought under control.

Suthep Nutsruang, Mae Hong Son municipality mayor, yesterday launched a campaign to urge residents to help solve haze pollution, which threatens the health of people with respiratory ailments.

Dust particles smaller than 10 microns were measured at 340 microgrammes per cubic metre (ug/cu m) in Mae Hong Son's Muang district yesterday, almost three times the maximum level considered healthy - 120 ug/cu m.

Mae Hong Son governor Direk Konkleep urged residents to spray their roofs and roads with water from 1-3pm in a bid to reduce haze and increase humidity.

The province was recently declared a disaster area after the number of people suffering respiratory problems soared.

Mr Direk said he has asked chiefs of all seven districts to join hands with local administrative organisations to set up coordinating centres to operate around the clock combatting haze in their areas.

He also threatened to revoke occupational rights on private land plots if owners or occupants let bush fires burn on their land.

Third Army commander Maj-Gen Jiradet Khotcharat has ordered troops to survey forest fires at Doi Suthep-Pui national park in Chiang Mai and help forest fire units fight the blazes.

Troops from the 33rd Army Circle and the 7th Infantry Regiment yesterday took to helicopters to survey Doi Suthep-Pui national park and found several forest areas had been burnt out.

More than 500 soldiers and territorial defence students were yesterday sent to combat a forest fire which raged near Wat Ban Pong temple. It took several hours for the soldiers to put out the fire. Monks were evacuated to safety.

Col Khachachart Boondee, head of the 33rd Army Circle's military training centre, said the centre has closely monitored fires in Chiang Mai by sending troops to survey forest areas and national parks in several districts including Muang, Mae Rim, Mae Taeng and Chiang Dao.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Crossing the Harbour Bridge on its 75th birthday

Well, I did it! I walked the bridge today, along with hundreds of thousands of others who did the same.
It was great, just great!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

75th birthday of Sydney Harbour Bridge

Tomorrow Sydney celebrates the 75th birthday of the bridge. They're closing the road lanes for the whole day so people can walk over the bridge as a reenactment of the opening back in 1932. 200,000 people have registered to do the walk. I was too slow and so didn't register. However, I do intend to go into the city by train and participate in the celebration from The Rocks.
It could be a great time and lots of fun... I hope so.

Health authorities issue masks to northerners

The pollution in Thailand's north is not abating. Lots of people are having trouble with breathing, sore eyes, and other ailments. They need a good thunderstorm to wash the air clear again... though maybe that's simplistic it usually seems to make a difference.

MCOT : Health authorities issue masks to northerners :

BANGKOK, March 16 (TNA) – Thailand's public health ministry has sent 300,000 additional masks to eight northern provinces shrouded in haze pollution, even as the provincial health authorities estimate that as many as two-thirds of local residents now have respiratory complaints, serious allergies and colds.

Deputy Public Health Minister Morakot Kornkasem led a team to visit patients with respiratory illnesses in hospitals in Lampang, Chiang Rai, and Phayao on Friday.

He said that the North's average level of the air pollution is still higher than the maximum permitted by health standards, and more patients come daily to receive medical treatment at the region's hospitals.

Dr. Morakot said in Lampang, dust particles were measured at 152.6 microgrammes per cubic metre, against the health standard of 120 microgrammes.

There were 1,578 patients with respiratory illness visiting the hospital from March 1-14, 2007. No severe illnesses were reported, but two-thirds had colds.

In Chiang Rai, some 12,000 cases of colds and eye irritation were reported. About 120,000 masks are needed for children, the elderly, and patients with asthma and heart disease.

Local residents are advised to avoid outdoor activities and to cover their noses and mouths with damp cloths to filter out the particle-laden air.

Deputy Prime Minister and Social Development and Human Security Minister Paiboon Wattanasiritham said in his capacity as chairman of the committee coordinating haze pollution response in the northern provinces that all bush fires will be contained in the north within three days.

When the situation improves, he said, long-term measures will be planned and implemented.

Air quality in many areas has improved, he indicated, stating that there is now no need to declare an environmental emergency as was earlier being considered as officials are bringing forest fires under control. (TNA)-E004

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Thailand's prime minister flies north for smog crisis talks

The smoke pollution situation in Thailand's north continues to be bad. Yesterday dust particles in the air measured at 400 microgrammes per cubic metre. The health standard is a maximum of 120 microgrammes per cubic metre.

A friend wrote today to say that a couple of days ago it hurt to breathe. The family keeps the doors and windows closed with the air conditioner and air filter going all the time.

The pollution is already affecting tourism. Who'd want to go visit a place where you can't see anything nor can you breathe?

Bangkok Post: Prime Minister flies north for smog crisis talks
Chiang Mai (TNA)

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont will fly to Chiang Mai today to see for himself the smoke and haze now described as Thailand's worst airborne environmental disaster.

He is to escort royal supplies to be distributed to victims of the haze which is choking the northern provinces.

Chiang Rai Governor Amornpan Nimanant declared natural disaster areas in 16 districts and two subdistricts because of the smog.

He did not immediately say what his plans were. But declaring a disaster means he can dispense aid on an emergency basis, with little paperwork or involvement by the central government.

There is widespread criticism of the cabinet decision on Tuesday to give the smog problem another week to clear up before the government takes any action.

Dust particles caused by forest fires in this northern province have risen to their highest concentration in two weeks, measured Wednesday at nearly 400 microgrammes per cubic metre.

The highest level was measured at 383 microgrammes per cubic metre at Yupparatch Wittayalai in the provincial seat, compared to the health standard of a maximum of 120 microgrammes per cubic metre.

The regional environmental office reported the figure to the government, but solutions were not necessarily in sight.

The mayor of Chiang Mai municipality said the city is urging residents to spray water into the air by hoses to reduce dust particles and to increase moisture in the atmosphere.

The municipality is turning on fountains around the city, at historic moats and at other sites.

The province has banned all outdoor fires and has accelerated the activities of forest fire response teams, including using fire engines to spray water throughout residential areas to reduce the effects of the concentrated pollution.

Akkhanee Moonmek of the Love Chiang Mai Group said that the government's response was too slow to deal with the problem. "It ignored the problem and adopted a wait-and-see policy," he said
critically, suggesting the response was too little, too late.

He said the government should ban fires and declare an environmental emergency. It should also warn local residents of the health hazards posed by the dust.

The numbers of patients suffering from respiratory diseases has increased markedly throughout the region.

Dr. Pisit Sriprasert at Nan's provincial hospital said about 160 patients per day are visiting his hospital.

Nan forest fire control chief Muangman Kerdnana said the seasonal fires were expected to be critical due to severe drought. His firefighters are prepared to work around the clock, but are short
of necessary equipment for the numbers of workers needed.

Mai Sai district hospital director Dr. Sura Khunkongkhapan in Chiang Rai said many villagers are suffering from smoke-related respiratory diseases.

Patients from Thailand and Myanmar crossing the nearby border are coming to the hospital by as many as 100-200 people daily. Most of the patients are the elderly and children.

Northern region weather chief Thatsanee Chaichiengpin said a southwesterly wind is expected to move into the northern provinces and will increase humidity, coupled with artificial rain-making to help wash out the haze.

Royal rain-making operations centre director Somchai Ruangsutthinaruepab said that two more aircraft will fly Thursday, joining Royal Thai Air Force planes already in use to coax the rain daily since Friday March 9, he added.

The rain-making operations have not yet succeeded, he said, because smoke from the forest fires are rising as high as 10,000 feet.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

NSW Governor and the Light Horse Brigade

This past weekend I had the privilege of being in Braidwood for their Heritage Day Parade. It was a lot of fun. Just about everyone in the district turned out to take part in the event. Many were dressed in the colonial style clothes which made it great!
The governor of NSW attended with her entourage and gave a speech. Here, she's inspecting those representing the Light Horse Brigade from WWI.
I found the whole event very moving. There are other photos of the day at my Flicker site.

Chiang Mai's continuing smoke problem

I understand that the situation is pretty bad in Chiang Mai. One of my friends wrote to tell me not to come back just yet, it was so bad.

Slash and burn farmers are being blamed. I don't know if they really are to blame. It's usually convenient to blame the hill tribes people and the farmers for these sort of problems. The biggest problem has been the deforestation that has gone on for years and continues to occur despite the bans... it's not the little people who do this but the "dark influences" who continue to thumb their noses at what is good for the country in order to make a profit.
Authorities set one week smoke deadline
(Bangkok Post: Authorities set one week smoke deadline)

By Anucha Charoenpo and Apinya Wipatayotin

The government will declare a state of environmental emergency in the northern provinces and impose harsher penalties on slash-and-burn violators if they don't stop within a week.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Kasem Snidvongs said article 9 of the 1992 National Environmental Quality Act deals with the question of an emergency or public danger arising from a natural disaster or pollution caused by contamination and spread of pollutants.

In such cases, the prime minister has the power to order government agencies, state enterprises or any relevant people to take prompt action in order to control or mitigate the adverse effects of such danger or damage.

After the declaration of a state of emergency, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont would have absolute power to consider what measures should be taken or whether people should be evacuated, Mr Kasem said after the cabinet meeting.

He said the cabinet was also very concerned about the severity of the forest fires, especially in the northern provinces. Dangerously high levels of small dust particles have been generated by forest fires and burning activities.

The minister said forest fire control units from provinces with a low risk of forest fires, as well as soldiers from the Third Region Army, have been sent to the northern provinces to help local officials control the bush fires and haze crisis.

The Pollution Control Department yesterday reported that the level of small dust particles in the air in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son provinces was measured at between 240 and 290 milligrammes per cubic metre (ug/cu m), against the health standard of a maximum of 120 ug/cu m.

The level of dust in Chiang Mai was measured at 284 ug/cu m, the highest since the department issued its first dust warning on March 6.

Siri Aka-akara, director of the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department's forest fire control division, said the forest fire peak period would continue until the end of this month. This means air quality in the northern provinces, particularly Chiang Mai, could get worse unless there is more rain.

Mr Siri predicted that there would be more forest fires in the northern provinces due to a very low moisture level in the atmosphere, scarce rainfall and increasing burning activities on farmland.

"When such human activity mixes with natural conditions, then the severity of these forest fires will be terribly high," Mr Siri said.

The forest fire control chief said the haze problems occurred in the northern provinces every year during this period, but this year's situation was far more critical due to some "unusual climate conditions".

"The country has never experienced a cold air mass during this time of the year. But the cold air mass hit us this year and has blocked the small dust particles from evaporating into the air. A shortage of rainfall also worsened the situation," Mr Siri explained.

Suraphol Leelawaropas, the chief of the forest fire control division in Chiang Mai, said statistics showed that the smoke that has shrouded the province mainly came from slash-and-burn activities in farmlands, not from bush fires.

Puchong Insomphun, chief of Chiang Mai environmental office, said the situation had not shown any signs of improving thus far.

Officials had been searching for sources of smoke and found that Korean Bulgogi, a chain of outdoor barbecue restaurants, was a major source of smoke in northern cities, he said.

"We will soon ask these restaurants to reduce the smoke from their barbecue stoves. Although this would only be able to reduce a small amount of the smoke, we will have to do it to improve air quality," Mr Puchong said

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Northern provinces declare haze disaster areas

I'm kind of glad not to be in Chiang Mai at the moment. It's shrouded in smoke from forest fires in Burma. I can well imagine what it's like. Each year the air is very smoky anyway from the burning off of the fields. Chiang Mai sits at the foot of mount Doi Suthep and during this season the mountain disappears in the haze.

Bangkok Post: Provinces declare haze disaster areas
By Post Reporters
Chiang Mai

Chai Prakan and Phrao districts of Chiang Mai have been declared haze disaster areas and airlines have cancelled most flights because thick smoke from forest fires and traditional slash-and-burn farming has shrouded northern provinces and raised fears of increasing levels of harmful dust.

Chiang Mai, along with nearby Chiang Rai, Lampang and Mae Hong Son provinces, has been encountering heavy haze. The smoke also comes from bush fires in the Burmese town of Tachilek opposite Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai, officials said.

"The thick smoke is seen all over the sky," said Chai Prakan district chief Chokedee Amornwat.

The disaster zone announcement follows bad weather conditions caused by the haze for the past two weeks.

The smoke has hindered the visibility of airplane pilots and caused flight delays and cancellations.

Poor visibility has also blocked an effort to make artificial rain aimed at reducing the amount of dust, which is posing serious health risks to people.

The dust particles, technically called particulate matter (PM-10), have a diameter of not more than 10 microns, around one-seventh the width of a human hair. The tiny size allows them to easily lodge in lungs and cause respiratory problems.

To reduce their exposure to the harmful dust, the Public Health Ministry has distributed 130,000 masks to people in eight northern provinces - Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Lampang, Lamphun, Phrae, Nan and Phayao.

"The ministry has also given out leaflets telling people how to take care of their health in the face of thick smoke from burning activities," said permanent secretary for public health Prat Boonyawongvirote.

Yesterday, the level of PM-10 dust in Chiang Mai and Lampang was found to be beyond an acceptable standard. It was measured at 250.9 microgrammes per cubic metre in Chiang Mai and 154.8 in Lampang, against a health standard of 120 ug/cu m, according to the Pollution Control Department.

Chalermsak Vanitsombat, chief of the Natural Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, said forest fires were not only to blame for the air pollution.

"The haze largely comes from weed-burning in farms," said Mr Chalermsak, who supervises forest fire control operations.

Mr Chalermsak said his department has no power to stop the farmers and could only ask for their cooperation in stopping the burning.

The high price of maize has driven some farmers to encroach on forest and set fire to it to clear land for farming.

Mr Chalermsak said this was a "main cause of thick smoke" in Chiang Mai. This has intensified air pollution in the province, where household bonfires are also common.

The level of humidity in the air is also less than that of last year, causing more severe fires this year, according to the department.

Officials yesterday started making artificial rain in Chiang Mai. The mission aims to increase humidity in the forest, thus reducing the chance of forest fires.

Meanwhile, Thai Airways International (THAI) cancelled flights between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son for the second day yesterday due to poor weather conditions. However, Weerapong Kranlert, THAI manager for Chiang Mai airport, said it was common practice to do so due to haze in the dry season and mist in the cold season.

The thick smoke has also caused flight delays between Bangkok and Chiang Rai, but there have been no reports of flight cancellations on this route.

In Chiang Rai, 700 officials and volunteers have been ordered to be on alert for forest fires in areas near the border with Burma. Farmers are also prohibited from burning farm residues. Violators will be fined 2,000 baht, according to the Environmental Quality Act.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Saving lives on the Burmese border

Saving lives on the Burmese border
In the third of a series of articles from the Thai-Burma border, the BBC's Kate McGeown looks at the medical teams who do their best to help Burmese civilians in the region - sometimes risking their lives in the process.

If you were to trek into the jungle in eastern Burma, and mention the name Dr Cynthia, people would know immediately who you meant.

Cynthia Maung is well-known to Burmese in the border region, because her clinic in the Thai town of Mae Sot offers free healthcare, whatever the circumstances.

Most of the staff - including Dr Cynthia herself - are living in Thailand as refugees, having fled from Burma's harsh military regime.

Her clinic caters for thousands of other refugees, as well as economic migrants, and every year an increasing number of patients also come across the border from Burma, especially for treatment.

Such is the draw of the clinic - and the paucity of Burma's healthcare facilities - that even Burmese soldiers, with access to the country's best medical care, have been known to abandon their posts and turn up at Dr Cynthia's door.

"There is a real need for Burmese people to get access to basic healthcare, because conditions there are so bad," said Dr Cynthia. "We treat everyone we can, and we don't discriminate."

Allied to the clinic is another organisation, the Backpack Health Workers Team, which trains and equips local people to provide basic medical services in their communities back in Burma.

Often working in active conflict zones, riddled with landmines, these backpack medics risk their lives for their work - in fact seven have already been killed.

But as one young medic, Sa Muna, put it: "If we didn't do this, people would have no help at all."

'Waiting to die'

Both Dr Cynthia's and the backpack team have their origins in 1988, when a crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrations forced thousands of people to flee the country for Thailand - among them Dr Cynthia and backpack team director Mahn Mahn.

"We began by treating some of the people with us - a lot had malaria and were malnourished," said Dr Cynthia, "but soon we established a proper clinic."

She has never looked back. In 1989 her clinic had 2,000 patients, but last year more than 80,000 people received some form of treatment.

For many Burmese people, going to a Thai medical centre is not an option, partly because of the expense and also - for illegal migrants - it is an unsafe advertisement of their presence in Thailand.

So instead they pour into Dr Cynthia's.

The treatment on offer has revolutionised lives. "First I went to hospital in Burma, and I had to sell all my land to pay for it, but I still didn't get well," said 59-year-old Saw Raymond. "So my two sons brought me here, and I'm feeling a bit better already."

A quiet 34-year-old woman in the corner said she had come to get a supply of anti-retroviral drugs. She recently found out that she had HIV, and her whole village clubbed together to pay for her journey to Dr Cynthia's.

"I couldn't afford any treatment in Burma. If it wasn't for this clinic I'd just be waiting to die," she said.

Treating the enemy

A building at the back of the clinic houses a workshop for Maw Keh and his team, who construct prosthetic limbs for the many landmine victims in the region - a legacy of the long conflict between government and rebel soldiers.

"We often see people who have waited years for a new leg," said Maw Keh, who himself lost a leg to a landmine while fighting for the KNLA (Karen rebel army).

Most staff at the clinic, like Maw Keh, are ethnic Karen, and many openly support the rebels. But they say they will treat anyone who needs help, and true to their word a young soldier from the DKBA ( Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) - a group that split off from the KNLA and now fights on the government side - was being treated at the time of my visit.

"My motorbike hit a landmine, probably set by the KNLA," said 21-year-old Daniel Tun. "I don't know why I was brought here, but these people are good to me."

The backpack medics work under the same principle, although perhaps for them it is even harder to stay true to this creed. Their job is extremely dangerous, and they are often escorted by rebel armies for safety.

"I work in a war zone," said 29-year-old Ehkalu, who is usually based in an ethnic Karen region but is currently in Mae Sot for training. "A gun is an essential piece of my equipment."

There are now 300 backpack medics, chosen from the communities they serve.

It is obvious how much they are needed. "One day we went to a village, and there were Burmese soldiers there, so it wasn't safe for us to go in," said Sai Lao, an ethnic Shan medic. "The people brought their sick out to us in the jungle, on make-shift stretchers."

But sadly there are sometimes situations that can prove just too difficult.

"Once I had to help a woman who had a difficult labour. Normally it would have been fine, but were in a battle zone, and we couldn't get her to the clinic in time. She and her baby died," said another medic, Sa Muna.

Burma's healthcare system is teetering on the brink of collapse, and more and more ordinary people are looking to organisations like Dr Cynthia's and the backpack medics to help them.

"Even if there are radical changes, the country will need time to rebuild before it can care for its people again," said Dr Cynthia. "We'll be here for many years to come."
(BBC News, Monday, 5 March 2007)

Monday, March 05, 2007


Toadstools #1
Originally uploaded by bhojman.
With all the lovely rain Sydney has been getting these past couple of weeks, it's time for the mushrooms and toadstools to awaken from their sleep and sprout forth. These toadstools are a couple from a line of toadstools that came up in the lawn yesterday. Today, the line is longer and fuller. I will go out and take some more photos soon... good fun!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Damp weather continues

The damp weather continues here in Sydney. In fact, some parts of Sydney got drowned yesterday. Campbelltown had such a downpour that a school car park got flooded and a bunch of cars were washed away. I guess it was a pretty frightening time for those in the cars. No one drowned.
Some of the storm water is finding it way into the catchment area. The Warragamba dam has received water in it now and is now 37% full.
We still need lots more rain to fall, and especially in those parts of the state that are still parched.