Environment Opinions

[Opinion] Haze: Malaysia’s Annual Problem?

Like the movie, The Terminator, the annual haze is once again back in Malaysia…. plaguing our skies with the foggy foul stench that makes our eyes go dry and gives the throat an itch.

I’ll be back! – The Terminator

This year it came a little late, with it typically occurring in the months of May to October.

Aerial shot from KLCC

The Cause
The main cause of the haze are from the fires occurring in Indonesia, although arguably, Malaysia isn’t really guilt-free. Some of these fires are also originating from Malaysian soil. The product of the fires – tiny particles of ash, dust and smoke particles together with sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter from Indonesia are then blown by the southwest monsoon winds towards Malaysia.

The main reason for this annual affair is the slash-and-burn practice by farmers to clear land and the lesser-known peat fires.

Slash-and-burn of lands
These lands are mainly cleared for the lucrative palm oil trade and timber.

Peat Fires
Peat is an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation or organic matter. An area that contains huge amounts of peat are called peat-lands. Peat-lands are the ecosystem’s most efficient carbon sink on the planet. They store naturally captured carbon dioxide up to more than 10 times as compared to mineral soil.

Should peat-lands catch fire, these fires can smolder underground for months… making them hard or almost impossible to detect. What makes these lands important to protect is that though fires in equatorial Asia account for just 0.6% of global burned area, it accounts for 8% of carbon emissions and 23% of methane emissions overall, according to Earth Observatory. And Indonesia happens to have one of the largest peat-land forests in the ASEAN region.

The Side Effects
Air quality worsening
The most obvious effect of haze, air quality. The air quality index (“API”) has gone up to hazardous levels, with Sri Aman, Sarawak breaching over 300 on the index, The Star.

Illnesses on the rise
Respiratory- and eye-related illness, like asthma and conjunctivitis are on the rise in Malaysia. N95 masks prices have been capped at a maximum of RM100 a box or RM6 each to prevent profiteering, The Star.

Fine particulate matter is also known to have adverse long-term health effects.

Flight cancellations
With reduced visibility due to the haze, certain flights have been cancelled for obvious safety reasons.

School disruptions
For obvious reasons, schools are closed when the air quality hits unhealthy levels.

Action Taken
Rewind to around Year 2002-2003, majority of the ASEAN countries signed the Transboundary Haze Pollution, with Laos signing it in 2004, Cambodia in 2006, Philippines in 2010, and the main proprietor – Indonesia in 2014. The agreement was for efforts leading to the harmonization of trans-boundary pollution prevention and abatement practices.

But the lack of enforcement procedures has lead it to be just an all-bark-and-no-bite measure. The ASEAN countries’ mentality of acting in their own self-interest rather than regional interests have left the problem status quo, with the haze happening annually despite of the agreement.

Hence, what we are doing now is just ain’t enough!

Funding for alternate methods for land clearing and preparation
End the practice of slash and burn! There should be funding (or more funding if such a fund exists) for alternative methods for clearing and preparing the land again for the next planting cycle that is both viable and cheap. If not, the government will be torn between enforcement and the growth of the production (economy)… yet, they fail to realize that either way their economy will be adversely affected.

As long as the slash-and-burn method remains the most economically viable clearing method for farmers, corruption and conflict of interest will exist – and the haze will be here to stay.

Greater enforcement against the perpetrators? – Revaluation of the supply chains for commodity / agricultural companies
Take action against the big corporations that are endorsing such practices in their supply chain!

Not too recently, the larger palm oil players signed the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto pledging to zero-deforestation, creating traceable and transparent supply chains and protecting peat areas, while ensuring economic and social benefits for the local people and communities where oil palm is grown.

But how many are actually holding true to their word? There is a great need to hold these large corporations to their pledges, and have penalties in place if they fail to do so.

There is also a need of the smaller players who are not under that much public scrutiny to follow suit.

To include enforcement procedures in the Transboundary Haze Pollution agreement?
Currently the agreement is toothless. If there are any disagreement under the agreement, it will be resolved merely through negotiation and consultation between the countries. Since the agreement failed to outline enforcement procedures, there is no possibility of a third party to be an arbiter when a haze-related dispute takes place between the signatory countries. This also means that there is no chance to bring any breach to the international criminal court.

Change in local laws
Malaysia could follow Singapore in introducing laws to act against culprits of the trans-boundary haze, should the perpetrator be from Malaysia.

Final Thoughts
Looking at the year so far, with the Amazon fires and those in Indonesia. The risks posed by climate change is at a point where it may hit a point of no return. It’s high time we care about these issues, take action and make a change.

The time is now.

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