Ten things we can learn from the Singapore-Malaysia haze

Malaysia haze
One of the lessons people have to learn from the haze issue is that pollution does not respect borders. Image: AP
  1. No one lives on an island. Winds can blow freely anywhere. Waters of the sea mingle seamlessly. Nature has bestowed on us an inter-connected world.
  2. In February, Agence France-Presse reported that smog and pollution from China crossed the Sea of Japan and laid thick over portions of Japan for several days. Even in far-off California, research indicates that particulate pollution travels all the way from Asia. Pollution does not respect borders and does not need a passport to travel.
  3. It is easy to pin the blame on someone else. But if we introspect, we realise the guilt has to be equally shared. Plantations of palm oil did not come up overnight. For years, the use of palm oil has been growing steadily in our economies. Cheap and convenient, it is used in baked goods, confectionery, cosmetics, body products and cleaning agents. Do we ever read the ingredients listed on our favourite chocolates and biscuits? As trans-fats and hydrogenated vegetable oils gained negative press, palm oils grew in acceptability.
  4. Growing palm oil in plantations requires the clearing of forests, often by corrupt means. Pristine rainforests are being cleared everyday to grow palm oil. Hundreds of species including orangutans are being wiped out slowly for our sugary packaged snacks and fragrant, chemical-filled soaps and shampoos.
  5. It is time-consuming and expensive to clear forests by cutting down individual trees. It is easier to simply use a matchstick. Big corporations also resort to this method to save time and cut costs. These corporations are not owned by any one country. People from different countries have shares in them. They are the ones who look at financial returns not the impact on the environment. Smoke and haze are just some of the byproducts, which they do not expect to see in their own backyard. Peat swamps near the forests also burn alongside adding to carbon emissions.
  6. The haze is not new. It has happened every year in varying degrees. When it escalated to unhealthy levels, there were voices asking questions about the forest fires but these voices never culminated in real action. The root causes were not challenged except by a few crazy environmentalists. Now, everyone is paying for inaction.
  7. Last year marked the 60th anniversary of London’s Great Smog of 1952 that is estimated to have killed 12,000 people. That compelling event gave a fillip to environmental research, government regulation and public awareness of the relationship between air quality and health. It informed the world about the lethal effects of air pollution and brought laws limiting dirty fuels and black smoke. Will this Great Singapore-Malaysia Haze be the starting point for any regional or global action?
  8. Each time any of us in the planet shower, drink water, turn on the airconditioner, dry our clothes in the dryer, shop or drive our car to work, we are generating tonnes of greenhouse gases. These invisible gases blanket the earth, gradually raising the temperature to what is far beyond healthy for any way of life. In fact, it is just the right temperature to spark forest fires. Let us not neglect this invisible haze. Our children’s future depends on it.
  9. A hazy mind is even more dangerous than a haze of pollution.
  10. The current haze will go away like every year when the wind changes direction or when rainfall washes it down. It is up to us to either forget it and go about business as usual or to take a stand against mindless consumerism and excessive creature comforts which are fuelling environmental damage all over the world.

Sahana Singh is the editor of Malaysia’s Asian Water magazine.

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