Haze, haze go away

It is that time of the year again.

It is hot, dry and the schools are closed as though it is the summer holidays.

The Westerners equipped themselves with bikinis and trunks while the Southeast Asians are prepared with breathing masks.

The lowlands looks like it is shrouded with mist; except that it is shrouded with haze.

The haze crisis in Malaysia and Southeast Asia is not something new.

The first appearance of haze in Malaysia was probably decades ago.

In recent years, the crisis has gotten more often with the problem happening almost every year, just a matter of different degrees of seriousness. It does not happen only in one country. It is a transboundary issue mainly across Southeast Asia.

The major haze crisis began in 1997, when the haze covered most parts of Southeast Asia, whereby Kuching recorded an Air Pollutant Index (API) of 860 during that period.

2006 recorded another round of a major haze issue when the effects can be felt as far as South Korea. The occurrences of El Nino made the problem worse during that year.

The 2013 haze was considered one of the worst that Southeast Asians have experienced. That year was notable as the haze caused record high levels of pollution in several cities. The API in Singapore reached a record high of 401 on 21 June 2013. On 23 June 2013, the API in Muar increased to 746 which caused the declaration of emergency in that city in the south of Malaysia.

We faced another year of crisis in 2015 when a serious level of haze hits again. Flights were disrupted, education institutions were closed, many have to seek medical assistance for respiratory issues. That year alone, the Indonesian Government estimated that the haze crisis would cost about US$35-47 billion to mitigate.

What makes the matter important and should be highlighted is that it is not a natural disaster. It is caused by humans. The haze is largely caused by illegal agricultural fires due to industrial-scale slash and burn practices in Southeast Asia particularly Indonesia and Malaysia. Apparently burned land can be sold at a higher price illegally, and eventually used for activities including palm oil and pulpwood production. Burning is also cheaper and faster compared to cutting and clearing manually.

Despite losing billions of dollars annually due to the haze crisis; despite having talks and discussions every time the haze appears; we still couldn’t solve the issue. Haze still keeps coming up every year, because of human greed.

Lack of action and political will to tackle the cause of the haze especially towards the planters that uses the slash and burn techniques to clear the forests has been causing the unstoppable issue.

It is time for the Southeast Asian countries to collaborate together with the Indonesian Government to act against the culprit of the companies that are causing fires across the region. One obvious action that perhaps we are not tough enough against the Indonesian Government and companies that are causing the fires and pollution.

Although the Southeast Asian countries has ratified the ASEAN agreement on transboundary haze pollution, it was criticised for not being effective.

The agreement was deemed as lacking enforcement mechanisms. This is due to the official system of rules that informs this agreement is the ‘ASEAN way’ of diplomatic conduct. This basically means that the countries in ASEAN shall not interfere with another country and are expected to act in their own self-interest respectively.

Furthermore, by looking at the commitment of the ratification of the agreement, Indonesia which is the main contributor of the haze is the last country to ratify in 2014; 12 years after it was first introduced in 2002. We should be proud that Malaysia is the first country to ratify the agreement.

But with the haze crisis remains despite the agreement, perhaps our Malaysian Government must take the act to another level. A law must be set to take action against the culprits of the pollution. A good example is the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act which is implemented by the Singaporean Parliament that criminalizes conduct which causes or contributes to haze pollution in Singapore.

If there is still lack of awareness and will in our region, maybe we will need a Greta Thunberg of Southeast Asia to remind people to make history and stop haze from happening again.

This article has been published in Mandarin in Kwong Wah Yit Poh dated 24th September 2019.

Are we warming or warning ourselves?

HOT! No, it is not the political situation. It’s the weather, literally.

Since few weeks ago, we have experienced hot weather throughout the country. The heatwave is causing uneasiness towards everyone. Plants are dying due to the heat and dehydration. Fields of green have turned into fields of brown. After shower, we aren’t even sure whether the drips of water are pipe water or it is our sweat. This is how serious the heat is in Malaysia.

According to the Meteorological Department, it’s the El Nino phenomenon that has struck us which was very similar to what has happened in the year 1997-1998. Some has argued that this is caused by the change of the Earth’s climate system or better known as global warming. Either causes of the heatwave that is warming us up, studies have suggested that both El Nino and global warming are linked with each other.

Last Saturday, many were excited over the annual event of switching off the lights for an hour. Earth Hour, which it is. For those who are not aware, it is an event where people switch off non-essential lights for an hour to create an awareness of not wasting power for the sake of preventing global warming. The awareness itself is not only about urging us to turn off non-essential lights when it is not in used. It shows how important and urgent it is for us to show concern for our environment.

Greenhouse gasses, fossil fuel burning, deforestation, tree-cutting and over-development have been the few major causes of global warming. 185 nations have signed the declaration and committed towards the prevention of global warming in the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris last year. Major cities have been taking actionable steps to prevent global warming.

Studies have been made and it is a common fact that developing a city causes global warming. The factories release toxic wastes and greenhouse gases. Forests have to be destroyed to make way for development of industrial areas, residential buildings and high rise towers. The influx of people into a city increases the need of faster transportation which emits more carbon monoxide.

Many developed cities have given us lessons and taught us on the effects of over-development. By taking developed cities as case studies, we should know what we must not do to prevent global warming and destruction of the environment.

Despite the ‘Cleaner, Greener Penang’ slogan, unfortunately, it seems that Penang is not learning from experiences of the others.

Deforestation and vanishing of hills is happening in many places in Penang to make way for developments. It is an obvious scene that anyone can witness brown patches of the earth in many parts of the hills.

Trees with the age of more than a century are being chopped off to widen the road. Some may argue that trees can be planted. But how long do we need to grow a tree in such a size to be an effective carbon sink, to provide shelter and clean air for the people. Furthermore, it is not easy to make sure that young trees survive in the long term in our environment today.

Without a doubt, I believe everyone craves for development in the city that they live in. But we ought to remember that development must be made to give us comfort and a better place to live in. If development causes us the heatwave as we are suffering today, then probably we should think twice on the state’s development planning. Is it for a better place to live in or is it purely for monetary gains?

However, there are proven ways that we can enjoy the luxury of development and at the same time protecting the environment. Sustainable development has been a main agenda in many parts of the world. We must not neglect the environment for the sake of development.

Sustainable development is not only the responsibility of the government or the corporates. It is the responsibility of every single one of us in ensuring it. We can take small steps to protect the environment as urged in the Earth Hour; play a role in community efforts; put pressure and making sure that the government makes the right decision. There are certainly many ways to inspire a better place for us to live in.

Let us ask, are we warming or warning ourselves?