Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Haze Season Again

About 4 days ago I noticed the skies in Seremban was hazier than usual but didn't know then that it was caused by smoke that had drifted across the Straits of Melaka from Sumatra due to open burning of forests being cleared for planting of oil palm. Below is the image captured by NASA satellite.

You can almost feel the pain of those whose air have been polluted by the drifting smoke caused by such indiscriminate and illegal opening burning. Singapore was very badly hit 24 hours ago when the Air Pollution Index or API hit 401 which is considered hazardous. What else can the government do but blame on the Indonesian government for failing to arrest this annual problem? And to be rebutted as being childish is unbecoming. The source of smoke had come from Sumatra and the host country must deal with it as the problem had hurt the residents of Singapore and Malaysia. A simple apology and an assurance that the government is trying its best to contain the problem and that any assistance offered would be appreciated would be more neighborly and assuring Unless drastic steps are taken now we can be expected to suffer this health problems for years to come.

I cannot recall when we started complaining about haze. But it certainly have to do with the development of Sumatra as a world producer of crude palm oil. In the mid 1960s Malaysia started planting oil palm as a commercial oil crop after importing the seeds from Nigeria and that transformed our economy to be the largest palm oil producer in the world. However rising costs of harvesting and processing as well as government restriction on the expansion of oil plam incursion into the natural forest cover led to the plantation owners in Malaysia to collaborate with Indonesian land owners to develop the tropical forests in Indonesia and Kalimantan into oil palm plantations. It is economically profitable as land there are cheap and so are the labor which is in abundant supply. As a result Malaysia lost its position as the no. 1 palm oil producer to Indonesia after 2006. Today Indonesia is the largest producer of crude palm oil while Malaysia retained its position as the top exporter of palm oil products (refer HERE for additional information).

In between the late 1990s and mid 2000s was the period when vast tracts of virgin forest lands in Sumatra were cleared for replanting with oil palm trees. To speed up the land clearing open burning was the preferred and cheapest option. The devastation was both ecological and economical. Wild lives were dislocated and diminished when they had no where to run for cover. Elephants, tigers and the endangered orangutan died at the hands of ruthless plantation owners who had selfish profit motives in mind without any concern for wild life conservation. Economically while Indonesia prospered with better job availability for their workers neighboring countries suffered annual high medical bills, loss of manpower time and loss of tourism income in such a time when open burning is carried out in defiance to government orders. It is quite possible some of these owners have good connections with senior government officials to explain why year after year the problem stayed unresolved.

Looking back I'm sure the haze season became a routine problem for us from around 1998-2000 and since then there had not been any improvement in air quality. Today we have the internet and social networking to receive live reports on how air quality deteriorated and what decision we take to plan our day. Those affected are not taking this lying down. While we share common air we also demand that the air we breathe must be responsibly used and exchanged. Global efforts must be made to pressure offending nations to take immediate measures to stop hurting other nations especially when the causes are man made. Volcanic eruptions that spew dust and poisonous gas into the atmosphere which are carried thousands of miles into the airspace of surrounding nations are a natural disaster unlike those actions taken by citizens and corporations who deliberately violate environment laws regardless of how their actions inconvenienced or endangered the lives of others. It is not improper for the Association of SEA Nations or ASEAN and the United Nations to force Indonesia to act more decisively on the offenders. A cross border law enforcement agency must be set up to stop future air pollution of such a scale. Profit motive must never overide the need to be civil and kind to our environment and health.

This aerial picture grabbed from my Facebook friend posting this morning caught the actual open burning in action. Question is with such an evidence will the land owner be persecuted?

These pictures showed the air quality this morning in Kuala Lumpur and Seremban. I joked with my wife as we drove to church that we should fly to New Zealand for a 2 weeks holiday and return after the haze is over. I believe my friends there are thankful they had migrated to a land where the air is clean.

I have little doubt that nothing will change until the haze dissipate on its own when the open burning dies down. Will we then forget and be reminded a year later or will strong government to government talks eventually lead to cleaner air for all of us affected over the past 15 years or so? Or do we let our children and grandchildren grow up in such unhealthy environment?


Anonymous said...

Peter, good write up.
here is another report about the current haze. The truth is the haze will probably blow over in a few weeks time. Will people forget? Andrew.

Peter Yew said...

Thanks for the new lead. You do have a keen interest in global affairs. I am quite pessimistic that there will be any significant improvements in the reduction of forest fires. Resources to track the offenders are limited, bribery is surely frequent and law enforcement will not be forthcoming as the plantation owners are well connected. They may be some reduction but we won't be seeing much lesser haze.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter, People will act when their bottom line is affected. Singapore protested strongly, I am sure because of health reasons, but I am pretty sure, also because of their tourist industry. Andrew.

Peter Yew said...

If you will check my FB at you will read 2-3 sites I shared about the haze issues. I think this is the worst haze experience in the past 15 years or so. People are now more aware of their rights and more demanding of resolution of long standing issues that cannot be swept under the carpet anymore (re: GE13 is another case in point). Yes, business will be affected but we don't read of tourism industry or hotels complaining. It is the ordinary citizens and parents of schoolchildren who are adamant that the government do something.

Something will be done but the process will be long drawn. Certainly I expect less haze next year. Then when enforcement relaxes the bigger haze will return again.


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