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Annual Haze Affects Health, Economy in Chiang Mai

In northern Thailand, the annual haze has come early, affecting both citizens' health and the local economy -- including traffic in and out of the region's airports.

In the capital of Chiang Mai, hospital workers face an alarming increase in patients suffering respiratory illnesses, as the haze sets in.

It’s a problem every year caused by excessive field burning in the region during the dry season. But this year’s smoke arrived early.

Thousands of air masks have been distributed to those most prone to illness. But it is seen mostly as damage control for nurses like Saisuda Sutthirat.

"We have health pamphlets to hand out to patients who have the throat problems and coughing," she said. "We teach them how to wear the mask properly.”

Trans-boundary haze has been a growing problem in Southeast Asia as unregulated development moves ahead in places like Laos and Myanmar, also known as Burma.

A report released last week by the U.S.-based international non-profit organization Forest Trends says that forest conversion for commercial agriculture is now the main reason behind Myanmar’s deforestation, which often entails massive burning.

Thai officials monitoring hotspots in the region say drastic measures must be taken by all countries to reduce the problem.

"We have reports the Thai army working on the border has talked with leaders of the neighboring countries, asking them to help to stop the forest fires and make a boundary fire line. But it’s still not enough," said Jongklai Woraphongsatorn, of Chiang Mai's Natural Resource and Environment office.

"They have to decrease the hot spots in their country too because the fire didn’t just spread across the border but when they burn the forest, the winds blow the smoke into our country and impact the people," he said.

Many flights have been cancelled or re-directed but solutions are limited and authorities are now adding rain-making and forest fire runs to alleviate the particles of dust.

For Air Force Captain Phongthep Viwattanadet, who usually douses the flames, the challenge of cutting through the smog is mounting.

"The haze has impacted to our flight visibility. But we have an aviation standard to guide us when it causes problems to our flight," he said. "So far we can deal with the visibility and we will continue our water drops until it gets better."

For now, it seems like the locals will have to wait for the monsoon season to clear things up. In the long term, however, questions remain about how much damage will be inflicted before a proper groundwork can be implemented for a real solution.