Sellers of facemasks have been doing brisk business across the lower parts of Southeast Asia over the past few weeks. Millions of people covering their mouths and noses to guard against choking pollution have become participants in an annual ritual that tries everyone’s patience.
For the past 16 years or so, cities and towns across Malaysia and Singapore, and occasionally parts of southern Thailand, are blanketed in dense, pungent smog every year. The haze can appear anytime between May and October, but this year the month of June has been one of the worst in memory.
Pollution levels in Malaysia reached record highs in June and on Kuala Lumpur’s famous skyline, the iconic 88-floor Petronas twin towers disappeared from view for days. In Singapore, aerial photographs revealed almost nothing because the smog was so thick. The PSI (Pollutant Standards Index) in the city-state at times topped 400 — anything above 100 is considered unhealthy and 300 or more is hazardous with a capital H.
All this smog is originating from Riau province on Indonesia’s Sumatra island, where farmers annually use slash-and-burn techniques to clear land, usually forest or peat, to plant crops. Vegetation that is chopped down and set on fire produces smoke that is extremely difficult to stop.
Every year the blame game goes on and this year has been no different. Promise after promise gets made to tackle the problem but most never last beyond the duration of the haze itself.
Once the blue skies return, all promises are forgotten.
There has never been a serious attempt to nip the haze problem in the bud. Though Indonesia claims it has outlawed the use of fire to clear land, what is lacking is real enforcement, using the might of the state to take those who light the fires to task.
The perception that Indonesia is not serious is strengthened by the fact that the Jakarta government has refused to ratify the Asean Agreement on Trans-Boundary Haze.
But wait — Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has apologised.
“For what is happening, as the president, I apologise to our brothers in Singapore and Malaysia,” he said last Monday.
“There should be a thorough investigation. In my analysis, there are both natural and human factors” causing the problem, he added.
But some of the president’s ministers are not singing the same tune; to them the apology was just the personal gesture of one man.
The fact is, annual spats over responsibility for the haze are part of the ritual. Indonesian politicians like to point out that Malaysian and Singapore companies own many plantations in Riau.
For the record, 17 timber companies and 15 palm oil companies operate in the Indonesian province. They include Singapore-listed Wilmar International Ltd, Kuala Lumpur-based Sime Darby, and Singapore-based Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd, with land in areas affected by fire.
A report by the World Resources Institute identified several sources to the fires — 47% originate in forests being cleared for oil palm planting, 27% in timber plantations, 20% in oil palm plantations, 4% in protected areas and 1% in logging areas.
Corporations have denied their involvement in the fires, pushing the blame to individual farmers for clearing the land by setting forest fires.
According to Indonesian law, plantation owners have to set aside 20% of their land to support smallholders in oil palm planting, and it is a common practice for the smallholders to clear the land by fire. It is also the cheapest way to clear land.
So far the Indonesian police are said to have arrested two farmers for illegally starting fires to clear land.
Since the topic is so hot across Singapore and Malaysia, with a lot of people venting their anger on social media networks, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has leapt into action.
A multi-stakeholder group whose members include palm oil companies as well as community members and environmental experts, the RSPO runs a certification programme that has both supporters and detractors in the environmental movement.
The RSPO issued an especially stern statement last week, condemning the “deplorable” fires and haze. It said five of its member companies had been reported to have been involved in burning but that more proof was needed. It ordered them to submit updated digital maps to verify where the fires were taking place, and vowed to punish any members found to have allowed burning on their land.
Meanwhile, the haze is casting a pall over the economic outlook for Malaysia and Singapore.
Tourist attractions, airlines, restaurants, hotels and other businesses are feeling the pain.
A study of the first severe haze outbreak, in 1997, said it lasted about three months and cost Southeast Asia an estimated US$9 billion from disruptions in air travel, health expenses and other business impacts.
Economists and businesses say the costs this year are already mounting after three weeks as air pollution levels shot up to unhealthy and sometimes hazardous levels.
Big sporting events have been cancelled and people are being told to stay indoors; that means a lot of restaurants are losing business. There are indications that some tourists have already started to cut short their stays in some parts of Malaysia and some have even cancelled their bookings.
Airlines are already cancelling fights because their aircraft cannot land. Hospitals and clinics are packed with people suffering from haze-related illnesses.
No one has yet been able to put a figure on how much the haze-affected countries and businesses will lose, let alone the cost of cloud seeding to create artificial rain to ease the problem. For now, the smog will continue to choke business and people in Malaysia and Singapore.
About the author
Writer: Jen Rita