Air Pollution From Brushfires Chokes Rural Villages in Northern Laos

laos-fire Citizen Journalist
Fires rage in Luang Namtha province, Laos on April 3, 2020.

Brushfires in Laos’ northern provinces Wednesday spewed smoke and fine particulate matter into the air, causing respiratory problems for downwind residents in the Southeast Asian country, who say that the government failed to warn them about air pollution.

A resident of Oudomxay province told RFA’s Lao Service that the people are powerless against the wildfires and the pollution they generate.

“The smoke from the bushfire is blowing in and covering all the houses, so people are basically living in the pollution,” the resident said.

“The fire is out of control in both Oudomxay and Luang Namtha provinces, because people do not have fire-extinguishing capabilities out here,” the resident added.

The resident acknowledged that the government did warn people of the wildfire.

“But they didn’t say anything about air pollution or PM2.5, nor did they mention it is hazardous to people’s health,” the resident said, using a term that refers to particulate matter sized 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller.

An official at the Natural Resources and Environment Department in Oudomxay told RFA, “There have been no official notices on either air pollution or PM2.5 as a result of bushfires, but people surely must be aware of it.”

An Oudomxay health official said that the situation is getting better because rains are taking the pollution out of the air in some of the northern provinces, and because people have been told to wear facemasks when they are outside.

“Now the problem is not so serious, not as it once was, because now there is less smoke and the officials have issued warnings,” the health official told RFA.

Multiple purposes

Air pollution and smoke in northern Laos is a serious, but common problem.

In neighboring Myanmar, farmers using slash-and-burn agriculture techniques made over 2,000 separate controlled burns, some of which got out of control, and all of which added to the pollution problem in next-door Laos.

“People [in Myanmar] are doing their slash-and-burn farming, and then the fire spreads over a large area, so we cannot stop it,” an Oudomxay administration official told RFA.

“When it becomes such a huge fire, soldiers, police and volunteers, and even laypeople are deployed to contain it,” the official added.

More than 100 people are fighting the fire in the national reserve forest, but their lack of equipment is a major challenge.

According to an official Lao government report issued on Monday, the fires have claimed more than 18,000 hectares (69.5 square miles) of forest, including 7000 hectares (27 square miles) of the Hiphi national reserve forest, affecting 18 villages; 6,000 hectares (23 square miles) of the Saynamphark national production forest, affecting seven villages; and 4,000 hectares (15.4 square miles) of other forests.

Forests in other Lao provinces are also being destroyed by the fires, but there are no published estimates detailing the extent of the damage.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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