News: Peat fires and the ever-repeating haze

The Star, 19 Jun 2013

IT’S the same old script, year after year. Right around this time, the clear blue skies in parts of our country and a few other countries in the region will turn grey.

It is that time of the year when forests are being cleared the easy way by small-time farmers and big-time plantation companies.

And so the fires rage on and, aided by the monsoonal wind patterns, bring unhealthy pollutants into our lives. The haze is no respector of geographical or international boundaries. It simply goes where the wind takes it.

The newspaper headlines will scream, “The haze is back” or, as we declared in our Monday edition, “Hot and hazy days ahead.”

Call it deja vu but almost exactly a year ago, on June 20, the editorial in this same space began with this paragraph: “Today, parts of our country are enveloped by the haze, a perennial problem that invites the usual comments.”

And if we search the archives further back, you will find similar comments from different people on the same topic. As Hollywood might declare, “Same script, different characters.”

And so the plot will play itself out.

But the haze is not a work of fiction. It is a harsh reality story that can bring much grief to all of us if the problem worsens.

Each year, we just hope and pray that the burnt, bitter and pungent smell will not linger too long. And that we will never ever experience anything similar to the worst haze phenomenon ever in 1997-1998 which not only brought untold misery to millions of people, but exacted a heavy cost on the region estimated at close to US$9bil (RM28bil).

The moment the haze appears, the weatherman will tell us about the wind patterns and why the temperatures will soar.

The Department of the Environment will give us the API readings and we sometimes wonder why the figures do not seem to match what we see with our naked eyes.

The health authorities will tell us to take precautions and the school authorities will promptly cancel all outdoor activities..

Politicians will lament about how the haze can affect tourism takings while the politicians who hold office will try their diplomatic best not to be too harsh on the offending parties.

And, as to be expected, the relevant Asean ministers will agree to come together and talk.

There is already one scheduled for this August in Kuala Lumpur.

But talk is pointless if we cannot hold anyone accountable for the economic and social costs caused by the haze.

We need solutions.

It is worth remembering that a ground-breaking Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was signed here in Kuala Lumpur more than 10 years ago, in 2002.

Malaysia was the first to ratify the agreement on Dec 3, 2002 and another eight countries, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, followed suit. But Indonesia, despite stating many times that it will ratify the agreement, has yet to do so.

But if we despair in not being able to solve matters at the regional level, we should, for a start, look into our own backyard as well.

The most number of hotspots currently are from Sumatra but here in the peninsula, we also have some hotspots. They are often times caused by open burning and peat forest fires. We need to crack down on these as well.

At times like this, the clarion call to “think globally and act locally” should resonate with all of us, either as individuals or as nations.