Fires from illegal slash and burn farming in Sumatra in Indonesia have created smog that has reached hazardous levels in Singapore and Malaysia.
Last Friday, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reached 401 in Singapore, the highest it has ever been. PSI measures pollutant levels for major pollutants; 300 is considered a hazardous reading and the Singapore government says that a level over 400 for over 24 hours “may be life-threatening to ill and elderly persons.” People say the smog is so thick that they cannot see moving objects outside, including birds (which have reportedly been falling out of the sky).
On Sunday, the PSI was over 700 in some parts of Malaysia. At 746, the PSI reading in the southern Malaysian town of Johor was the worst since 1997, when a reading of 860 was recorded. Schools have been closed in Kuala Lumpur and some other parts of the country and residents (who’ve been rushing to procure face masks) told to stay indoors. Government offices, factories, plantations and construction sites have also been ordered to close and the use of private vehicles has been restricted.
One Kuala Lumpur resident tells the BBC that the air smells of burnt wood; outside, the smell is “like constantly standing close to a small barbecue.”
Singapore and Malaysia are also fearing billions of dollars in losses to their economies. Back in 1997 and 1998, the South East Asia haze covered Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the southern Philippines and led to an estimated $9.3 billion in economic losses, as well as major environmental damage.
The smog has been causing diplomatic tensions between Singapore and Indonesia, two nations that usually enjoy good relations. Singapore is considering legal action against two Singapore-based companies that own land in Sumatra. Malaysia has called for a meeting of southeast Asian ministers scheduled for August to be held as soon as next week and the President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has issued an apology, saying that “we will continue to take the responsibility to deal with what’s happening right now.”
Indonesia has been sending helicopters to conduct “water-bombing” operations over the fires and also planes with cloud seeding equipment, though dry weather and a lack of clouds has so far stalled the latter. Two farmers have reportedly been arrested for starting illegal fires.
Smog has become an annual phenomenon in Singapore and Malaysia. As one long-time resident of Singapore, Dora Cheok, notes, ”two decades ago, we didn’t have a haze season” and the very term “slash and burn” was “only to be found in international forestry policy white papers.”
The culprit is the illegal burning of trees to clear land for palm oil plantations. In slash and burn farming (which is cheaper than using bulldozers and other machinery), vegetation is cut down and burned; the method is even more commonly used in the dry season. “Fires across Sumatra are wreaking havoc for millions of people in the region and destroying the climate,” says Bustar Maitar, head of Greenpeace Indonesia’s forest campaign, in the BBC.
But as Cheok writes,
How do you tell a villager in Sumatra that he can’t clear forested land to provide for his family because it causes headaches in other countries? How do we balance a healthy environment with the needs of a growing population? What are the alternatives we can offer them?
That is, the real issue is that governments need to put their efforts and resources behind education and development to help people have the means and the backing to create, as Cheok says, “sustainable livelihoods.” In only a very short time, Sumatra’s forests that had existed for centuries — providing home to untold numbers of species of wildlife and plants — have been destroyed for palm oil plantations. Malaysia and Indonesia now produce 87 percent of the world’s palm oil. The rapid deforestation that occurred to create the plantations threatens the existence of orangutans and other endangered species and has also contributed to global carbon emissions.
Indonesia has pledged to double its production of palm oil by 2020. Its government may be tendering apologies for the haze shrouding its neighbor nations, but it seems that this will only continue to be an annual phenomenon — and even to get worse.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons