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The Arrival Of The Dreaded Haze

22 October 2016 / The Star

The third and fourth quarters of the year are upon us, signalling the arrival of what residents of South East Asia dread the most: the haze.

When this time of the year comes around, we are not able to function properly. We are unable to walk outside, do any work outdoors, exercise, and or even let our children go to school. How does the haze happen and why does it happen?

A study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters has attributed much of the worsening haze to the fires that are started for the purpose of clearing peatland. Peatland is the swampy soil that stores carbon and is easily combustible once drained. In this context, peatland areas are drained in order for the owners to develop the more lucrative palm oil and wood pulp plantations.

However, peatlands or peat swamp forests have an important place in our environment. Peat forests help to regulate the water table in the ground and almost act as a sponge to the heavy downpour of the monsoon rains. Peat swamps are also home to many plant and animal species, including those species that are on the endangered list.

Researchers from both Harvard and Columbia University undertook a study that compared the haze in 2006 with 2015. We can remember just how awful the air was during these two years, but the evidence speaks for itself. The research “compared the likely health impact of the smoke that spread across much of the region” using a complex modelling system, and put the number of smoke-related excess deaths from July 2015 to October 2015 at 100,300! The deaths mostly occurred in Indonesia, the main source of the fires. There were some other deaths in the neighbouring countries. This staggering statistic of deaths in 2015 was “more than double the number of deaths for the same four-month period in 2006”. This of course, doesn’t mean that there weren’t any deaths in the years between these two study periods.

We all know where the vast volume of smoke comes from within the region. Just by going to the Internet and looking at some of the satellite images, even a child can see the heavy white ‘clouds’ obscuring the satellite views. Those aren’t clouds, of course, they are made up of dust, smoke and chemicals.

In both 2006 and 2015, the study formally concluded, “Indonesia’s South Sumatra region contributed more than half of the region-wide haze”. The study goes on to state that “in 2015, 72% of the fire activity on the island was on peatlands, up from 44% in 2006”. So, these fires were clearly from the very important peatlands.

Interestingly, Indonesia’s “official death toll from the 2015 haze was 19 persons. There were an estimated 500,000 people who sought medical care for illnesses on the island of Sumatra, as well as on Kalimantan.”

Very eloquently, the lead researcher from Harvard’s department of earth and planetary sciences said “the goal of the research was to influence the strategies for managing fires and land use to reduce smoke exposure”. He went on to say that “the study tells Indonesia where to focus their efforts to prevent illegal clearing by fires, in order to save lives”.

The study, however, “only looks at premature deaths in adults attributed to breathing high levels of carbon-based particulate matter, but didn’t include other hazardous particles, such as nitrogen dioxide and other toxic gases.” The study also doesn’t include “children, who we all know are much more susceptible to the side effects from the haze, or the long-term impact of repeated exposure”.

The international community, both via political channels and investment dollars, has been trying to push Indonesia into getting a handle on these illegal fires and haze. The estimated economic losses, not only for Indonesia but also for Singapore and Malaysia, have been massive, with a few billion dollars for each nation. Indonesia was recorded to be one of the “world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitters”.

The facts are undeniable. We know that “over 100,000 people in South East Asia died prematurely last year from breathing the noxious haze related to fires set to clear land for agriculture.” We know that this staggering statistic only covers a four-month period of 2015 and doesn’t even begin to look at the effects of the haze on children. We also know that the governments are aware of the harmful impact on children, since so many schools were closed for days on end last year.

Ecological conservation is another reason to step up efforts to stop the illegal burning of peat swamp forests. The invaluable scientific discoveries that can be potentially gleaned from studying the biodiversity of peatlands are of global importance.

Despite everything that we know, however, we are still forced to live under these conditions. One has to ask why the burning is still allowed to happen when satellite imagery can clearly point out where the smoke originates from. Under the leadership of President Joko Widodo of Indonesia, a new agency has been tasked to “restore the degraded peat and place a moratorium on new peatland development”. Additionally, the Government of Indonesia has stated that they will prosecute those responsible for causing the haze and has commissioned both patrols, as well as firefighters, to put out the blazes. The agency now claims that the forest fires are under control and the number of hot spots are slowly reducing. We certainly hope this is true.

The haze is not something we should brush aside. The full extent of the damage caused by the haze to our lungs is still unknown, but could potentially be as severe as the fatal effects of other natural disasters. The efforts to voice out our concerns on the haze must not be suppressed, or the greed of those peatland owners will only lead them to strike that match again.

 

 

 




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