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Saturday October 7, 2006

Malaysians have had enough of haze woes


PETALING JAYA: We've had enough! That just about sums up the feelings of Malaysians when once again they have to bear with the blanket of haze that has left those suffering from respiratory problems gasping for breath. 

Non-governmental organisations, greenies and government officials have slammed the Indonesian authorities for the haze that is originating from forest fires in Sumatra, Kalimantan, Riau province and other parts of Indonesia.  

Readers have sent e-mails and SMSes expressing their anger and frustration. 

Even Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Azmi Khalid is hot under the collar. “Frustration is an understatement,” he said as he showed reporters the “view” from his 13th floor Putrajaya office on Thursday. 

How many more years will it take for the Indonesians to solve the problem of forest fires and open burning? How much longer do we have to suffer? These are the most commonly asked questions. 

Sarawak, one of the worst hit states, is already preparing for the worst and has activated operations rooms in all the Resident’s Offices.  

Schools in Sarawak will close when the air pollutant index (API) reaches the hazardous level of 300 and above. 

Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr George Chan said this was decided by the state Cabinet during its weekly meeting on Wednesday. A state of emergency will be declared when the API hits 500.  

According to him, schools would usually only be closed when the API level was at 400. 

“However, for the sake of the children’s health, the Cabinet has agreed that all schools be closed when the API breaches the 300 mark,” he said. 

Cloud-seeding has been carried out in the state since Wednesday, but there has been no rain. In the past week, the API in most parts of Sarawak registered an unhealthy level of 101 to 200, and Petra Jaya recorded a very unhealthy reading of 213 on Wednesday evening. 

A state disaster relief committee meeting, to be chaired by Dr Chan, will be held next week to discuss the next step of action. 

He added that the number of respiratory cases was increasing due to the haze. 

“In some areas, it has doubled or tripled, and we advise people with respiratory problems not to go outside,” he said. 

On giving assistance to Indonesia to put out the fires, he said that was a matter to be decided at Federal level. 

The Sarawak Natural Resources and Environment Board has already distributed more than 200,000 masks to the public. 

Sahabat Alam Malaysia field officer for Sarawak Jok Jau Evong said: “The Malaysian Government must apply constant pressure on Indonesia to take action. We should not make noise only when the haze gets bad.  

“Malaysian authorities must also ensure that Malaysian-owned oil palm plantations in Indonesia are not involved in open burning.” 

He added that Indonesian NGOs have also told him to get the Malaysian Government to pressurise the Indonesian authorities into taking action. 

Malaysian Nature Society executive director Dr Loh Chi Leong said the society was very concerned that the problem had dragged on for so long. 

“Asean has a working group for the haze, but exactly what has been planned has not been revealed,” he said. 

Dr Loh said the group had to present to the region what steps needed to be taken, and a timetable to execute the steps. 

“A number of issues must be addressed, including the poverty in Kalimantan and Sumatra, and also the enforcement of rules and regulations,” Dr Loh said. 

“Plantation companies must also cooperate in these initiatives.”  

Global Environment Centre (GEC) technical officer David Lee said the action taken should not only be at the policy level. 

“Everyone gets worked up when the haze comes every year and a lot of talk takes place. But once it's over, everyone forgets about it,” he lamented. 

Lee said the economic loss from the haze was huge, with its capability of grounding airplanes, affecting tourism and also reducing the intensity of sunlight, which would affect crops. 

“The problem needs strong political will to solve and it is unfortunate that Indonesia is not able to commit by ratifying the Asean transboundary haze agreement,” he added. 

Lee said GEC would work with Indonesian locals and educate them on other methods of clearing land other than the current slash and burn practice. 

“However, if nothing is done, especially in terms of enforcement, the haze will be back again,” Lee said. 

Meanwhile, the Kuala Lumpur Bar Committee said there was a great need for Malaysia and Indonesia to take effective and long-lasting steps to eradicate trans-boundary haze. 

“International law recognises a sovereign state’s right to protect its biosphere and it is its duty not to injure another’s,” chairman Lim Chee Wee said in a statement. 

“In order to ensure greater ecological security, both countries must take their respective obligations under international environmental law seriously. 

“Negotiations should address fire and haze prevention measures and attention ought to be shifted away from the mere incidental issue of financial reparations,” he said. 

Datuk Ch’ng Toh Eng, Selangor environment committee chairman, said: “It is unfortunate that we cannot choose our neighbours, so we need to tolerate it. Let the Ministry of Environment or Wisma Putra relate our deep frustration to their counterparts.  

“On our part, we have to ensure that there is no open burning in Selangor. We will do our part, and we want others to do theirs,” he said.  

Transparency International Ma-laysia president Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam said the Government should convene an urgent regional conference to discuss the haze in the region and come up with concrete and long-term solutions.  

He also questioned the effectiveness of the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution signed in 2002 in tackling the issue. 

“The agreement is not producing results. Year in, year out, we see the haze continuing to occur due to illegal logging or open burning in Indonesia. What is Asean doing about this?” Navaratnam asked.  

Related Stories:
Masks to protect vendors from haze
Sri Aman records highest API reading
 

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