ON Sept 23, 1997, exactly 22 years ago on Monday, the Kuching airport was declared closed, all schools in Sarawak as well as many government offices too, as a State of Emergency was declared when the haze PSI (pollutant standards index) reading on that day reached 839! (It was only many years later that it was exposed and revealed that the real figure then was a lot higher breaching 1,100!)
It was the worst haze that I had experienced in my life then – the year I turned 47.
But let’s take a quick look at the history of haze in Sarawak, in particular Kuching since 1950, the year I was born. According to my research on Google and Wikipedia (with a little help from friends on Facebook), the first hint of anything hazy only came around the year 1961. Singapore recorded it and many of its residents thought at the time that a nuclear bomb had gone off somewhere.
A Straits Times news report dated Oct 19, 1961 had the headline, ‘Haze gives the air pilots a hard time’. It was the first time that it happened and it was due to forest fires in Malaya. It was over within a week, although it panicked many Singaporeans and caused some flight delays. I don’t think that haze ever reached us here at that time.
As a young boy, from time to time during the dry season when the natives were burning their fields, usually around August and September, we would get slightly hazy conditions that would quickly disappear when wind directions changed; or when heavy rainfall dampened the burning fields of the cut and slash method of clearing for planting padi in the interior. It was an annual occurrence and we didn’t pay much heed to it – it was just another seasonal event to contend with.
Over a decade later in 1972, according to another Straits Times news headline of Oct 4 that year, ‘Haze over Malaysia puzzles the experts’. The report had said, “The haze, unlike a fog which can be dispersed by the heat of the sun, remained throughout the day … It is caused by pollutants in the atmosphere and these could be ash from either a volcano or a forest fire.”
It was then speculated that the cause of the haze was the burning of padi husks in Sumatra blown in by the wind!
Five years later in 1977, the haze hit Singapore hard and “forest fires raging in Sumatra” were the officially accepted culprits. Memory does not serve me well to recall if that haze hit us here in Kuching – however, I remember I was working in Kuala Belait in Brunei then, so I could have missed it totally. The haze could not have travelled that far from Sumatra to Brunei!
The next big one was the all-time record breaker – 1997!
Now famously known as the ‘Southeast Asian Haze of 1997’, it has long been remembered for its length and intensity. Due to the dry weather caused by the El Nino phenomenon, massive forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra led to two months of extreme haze throughout the region. On Sept 23, the PSI reached a peak of 839. The economic costs – increased spending on healthcare, downturn in tourist industry, and loss of income – led to losses estimated to be between S$97.5 million and S$110.5 million in Singapore alone.
Sixteen years later in 2013, another historically bad haze blanketed all the neighbouring countries of Indonesia and the winds had carried over the burnt ashes to Peninsular Malaysia, Kalimantan, Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei, and Singapore. These continue to be the countries that have long suffered all the effects of haze for the past 58 years due to their geography.
It seems to get worse each time that it strikes. Certain years we have had less burning and clearing thereby less haze but it comes around almost like clockwork in every cycle of four to five years.
Who’s to blame for all this haze? Can it ever be stopped?
Latest reports emanating from both Indonesia and Malaysia’s departments of environment tell us that only 39 per cent of these jungle clearings are for oil palm plantations. If it’s true and correct, what are the balance of the 61 per cent? There’s no other crop right now which is lucrative enough to generate such economic activity other than oil palm.
Say we give them the benefit of the doubt and that we can attribute arson, natural combustion, and smallholders’ clearing for padi and other cash crops – at most that’d take another 25 per cent. Somehow something doesn’t add up somewhere.
But wait – what have the government and the authorities been doing about reducing, curbing, enforcing against, all this burning all these years? So far it has all been meetings, talking, and threats to close down and to fine the culprits. All this hasn’t worked so far – and will not make an iota of difference as I can foresee another round of haze four or five years down the road.
Some blame it on Indonesia – a recent revelation had mentioned that each province or village had only been given a small budget of around RM2,000 per year to fight forest fires. That’s really pathetic. But then again during such calamities and national disasters, all budgets are no longer valid.
However, it is at least a good public relations exercise to show President Jokowi going to the ground and visiting the sites of the forest fires and making politically correct statements, and vowing to do the right thing about control and enforcement. But Mr Jokowi please act upon it too!
So far only Singapore has passed legislation to punish those responsible for causing the haze; other Asean countries are still meeting and talking about it!
At the end of the day, for as long as there’s a growing demand for consumables like palm oil for cooking and there is a shortcut to clear jungles for plantations, and for so long as there are no effective deterrents by law and by enforcement, I cannot foresee a day when there will be no haze. All we want to see – not just for ourselves but for our children and theirs – is a world where we have made it more difficult, shameful, and disgraceful to create such an unhealthy atmosphere for days and weeks, which threaten the lives of all of us, humans and animals alike. That’s what I pray for and you should too.