THE agony of being trapped in the all-enveloping haze, which should be more accurately called smog, continues with no end in sight.
It is no longer a transient irritation that can be “tolerated” because it will soon go away.
“The number of forest fires and land fires could rise until end-November,” according to a spokesman of Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency on Sept 23.
Part of the reason is the El Nino which causes dry weather that causes peat lands to burn faster.
The burning of peat lands and the forest fires caused by plantations and farmers in Sumatra and Kalimantan are the sources of the haze in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
It is incredible that after so many years of the annual haze affair, after so many promises of action, and after so many meetings and agreements in the context of the three countries and of Asean cooperation, there is still a severe and prolonged haze this year.
Especially if the haze is to continue another two months, solving this problem should be the highest priority for the leaders of Asean – or at least of the three countries.
Asean leaders have given priority to forging trade and investment agreements, and launching an Asean Community by the end of this year.
But the most visible and urgent issue – how to end the haze which is affecting the health of millions of citizens in the three countries – has yet to receive the full attention it deserves.
Health of the people and the environment we live in are surely more basic and important than expanding trade.
Some people may treat the haze as just an inconvenience that will soon go away.
It is immensely frustrating to have to breathe in the polluted air, especially for people who are vulnerable.
Those who have the means can close the windows in their homes, put on the air conditioner in every room, and buy air purifying machines to catch the haze particles.
But most Malaysians don’t have air-conditioners or air purifiers.
They have to open their windows and tolerate the smog-filled air for the whole day and especially night.
People whose health will be most affected include those living near the epicentres of the forest and peat fires, especially residents of Sarawak and Sabah, and those in the southern and central states of the peninsula.
For them, the Air Pollutant Index may often or continuously be in the unhealthy range (101-200), very unhealthy range (201-300) or even hazardous range (more than 300).
Note that the API reading exceeded 1,000 and even 2,000 in parts of Indonesian Kalimantan on some days last week.
Indonesians in both Kalimantan and Sumatra must be living in air-pollution hell, and some Sabahans and Sarawakians are also in a very bad condition.
Other vulnerable people include babies and young children whose still-forming bodies are least able to cope with pollution, those patients who really need clean air to breathe, especially those suffering from respiratory problems such as asthma and lung conditions, and those with a heart condition, and the elderly whose immune systems are weaker.
The most dangerous part of the haze are the small particles known as PM2.5 which are smaller than 2.5 microns or one thirtieth the diameter of hair, according to a Straits Times (Singapore) report.
These can become trapped in the lungs and are tiny enough to pass through linings into the bloodstream.
Regular long-term exposure to the particles is linked to increased risk of death from heart and lung complications.
Without haze, the PM2.5 concentration is usually 20-35 micrograms per cubic metre, and they become a problem when this hits 100 and dangerous at 200.
On Sept 23, the one-hour PM2.5 levels exceeded 100 in many parts of Singapore by mid-day.
It has been said that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly which plantation and farm are causing the forest fires and thus difficult to stop and prosecute them.
But this is not a good reason.
If enough financial and human resources are put into the effort, the culprits can be found and stopped.
The Washington-based World Resources Institute has detailed analyses of hot spots, and information on how many of them are inside pulpwood concessions, oil palm concessions and logging concessions (52% in all) and how many are outside concession areas (48%).
A coalition of Indonesian NGOs in Riau province have data on how 56 timber suppliers of the two biggest pulp and paper firms were having “hot spots” in January-August and hot spots were also found on 38 palm oil plantations.
So, it boils down to political will to take action.
The good sign is that Indonesian President Joko Widodo is taking personal charge.
On Sept 23 he visited workers fighting the forest fires in south Kalimantan and then headed for a second ground visit to Sumatra.
He is pledging to take more effective actions.
This year’s haze is the first that he is facing as president, and we hope that he will be more successful than the previous presidents who were in office since 1997, the first year of the annual haze.
There are now 4,800 soldiers and policemen fighting the fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, but more personnel and funds are needed, according to the Indonesian disaster agency official, who appealed for more financing.
The good news last week was that the government has suspended the operations of three plantation companies and revoked the licence of a fourth over the forest fires.
This may be “too little too late”, but let’s hope it is the start of real action from the Indonesian side. Malaysia and Singapore can also offer more help.
Hopefully the political leaders of all the countries will take the haze crisis with the seriousness it deserves. We can’t continue to be frustrated all the way to the end of November and then again next year and the year after.
- Martin Khor (email@example.com) is executive director of the South Centre. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
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