March marks the onset of the dry and hot season in Thailand. In the region, dry vegetation coupled with small human-made fires often result in uncontrolled forest fires. Agricultural burning and forest fires, including transboundary haze, contribute to high levels of pollution. Forest fires release particulate matter (PM) into the atmosphere including PM2.5 which are microscopic particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less – 30 times smaller than the diameter of the human hair.
Chronic exposure to PM2.5 increases the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer. A recent research paper published by The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, concludes that long-term exposure to fine particulate pollution is shortening the average life expectancy in Thailand by more than two years.
This year, Dr. Nion Sirimongkonlertkul and her team from Rajamangala University of Technology, Thailand, in collaboration with SERVIR-Mekong, a partnership between USAID and NASA, are championing the use of geospatial data to monitor fire hotspots and formulate targeted interventions to put out the fires.
SERVIR-Mekong’s Air Quality Explorer tool combines satellite data and models from NASA to enable monitoring and forecasting of air quality in Thailand. This information helps authorities devise data-driven policies and strategies to tackle air pollution. The tool has been developed in collaboration with Thailand’s Pollution Control Department and Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency- Thailand’s space agency.
Chart: The dry and hot season that started in March 2021 led to an increase in the number of fire hotspots in Northern Thailand, resulting in increased levels of PM2.5 pollution in the atmosphere. Data source: PM2.5 data from GEOS-5 satellite; Fire hotspot data from NASA FIRMS. Northern Thailand includes the provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lam Phun, Lam Pang, Mae Hong Son, Nan, Phrae, and Pha Yao. The World Health Organization guidelines for daily PM2.5 levels is l 25μg/m3 or lower.
Dr. Nion and the Chiang Rai provincial government developed the Smoke Watch App that is used by officials to monitor and manage forest fires in Chiang Rai Province in Northern Thailand. The Smoke Watch App uses data from the SERVIR-Mekong Air Quality Explorer tool to locate forest fires in near real-time. Thailand aims to reduce the number of regional fire hotspots by 20 percent in 2021 compared to 2020.
“Previously, it was very difficult and time-consuming for the Forest Fire Department to filter and localize fire hotspots. They would rely on notifications from the community informing them about the exact location of the fires” said Dr. Nion. “Near real-time fire hotspot data from the SERVIR-Mekong Air Quality Explorer tool is instrumental in pinpointing fire hotspots. The faster we identify the fire hotspots, the quicker we can respond to the fires, as a result, less PM2.5 pollution is released into the atmosphere.”
Ankit Joshi is the SERVIR-Mekong Communications Lead at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center (ADPC). He has extensive experience in strategic communication, stakeholder engagement, program administration, and fundraising. Prior to joining ADPC, Ankit led strategic sustainability initiatives at National University of Singapore, including the NUSDeltares Alliance. He received his undergraduate degree in English Literature from University of Mumbai, India, and master’s degrees in public administration from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and environmental policy from Roskilde University, Denmark.