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End this choking situation

June 24, 2013

Haze kills! A paper published by Prof Narayan Sastry from the University of Michigan in 2002 stated that the death rate among elderly people, caused by the effects of haze, increased by 70% when the air pollutant index (API) readings exceed 210. Another research work – this one by Prof Seema Jayachandran from Stanford University published in 2008, found a direct impact of the haze on fetal, infant and child mortality.

The current haze menace to hit Malaysia has already seen emergency status declared in two districts in Johor, with hundreds of schools ordered to be closed on Monday. For weeks now readings continue to be at hazardous level, sending a worried public into a frenzy of buying face masks, staying indoors and keeping a watchful eye on children, the elderly and anyone suffering from breathing related ailments. Although this year has seen the haze envelope the region with devastating impact, the problem itself enters into the second decade, with the Malaysian government continuing to blame the Indonesians for forests fires taking place in the lands.

Surely by now someone should have come up with urgent, effective solutions to stop this hazard from visiting our homes, offices, schools and parks? Or at least, there must be a system in place which would automatically kick start the moment these dirty particles start enveloping our space.

A new nationwide haze monitoring system- something like the tsunami alert – should be implemented, with authority given to local councils to act urgently to address the situation when it becomes dangerous to the public. Once the API readings hit an alarming level, local councils must immediately put in place actions already agreed upon so that the public are protected. The Department of Environment and local councils from the affected areas must also be prompt in issuing latest readings instead of trying to ignore the situation until it gets out of control. We should move away from only relying on the DOE for the three readings it issues every day. API readings taken from various spots must be channeled to all district councils, who should then put them up on their websites, and take necessary action needed to arrest the situation. Meanwhile DOE too can continue posting its readings but it is imperative that these readings be done more frequently and be posted as soon as they become available.

A colour code system would be useful too to highlight the dangers that the public face from the haze. For this the Health Ministry should do more than issue general guidelines about the need to use face masks and to stay indoors. There must be an educational campaign undertaken to inform the public of the perils and what is the best step to stay unaffected. It is time for road shows, media campaigns and other initiatives to keep the public better informed.

We have to stop kidding ourselves that the haze is a temporary problem that visits us seasonally and might as well be prepared to fight it effectively until the governments concerned have the will to put an end to this menace once and for while.

For that to happen, ASEAN must come down hard on Indonesia to ink the regional haze agreement to be effective. Malaysia too must be ready to crack the whip in punishing Malaysian-owned companies that continue to pollute the environment through their slash-and-burn methods to clear plantation lands. It is time to stop defending our companies and passing the blame to Indonesia. Perhaps Malaysia and Singapore can be involved in financially supporting a community movement in Indonesia to establish a community-based cooperation at the grassroots level to spot and fight such fires as they begin, before they escalate and get out of control, putting an entire region’s health at jeopardy.

The community-based cooperation, as suggested by the director of the Centre for Policy Initiatives, Lim Teck Ghee, makes good sense and will surely be met by public approval.

He says it would be relatively cheap to recruit a team of fire spotters and fighters to work during the three- or four-month period when these fires seem to take place; as long as they are trained and provides with basic fire- fighting equipment to put out illegal fires when these are spotted in their immediate neighbourhoods. Handphone connection for these community fire fighters to a central command would help ensure that any blaze beyond the resources of the local group to extinguish would be quickly identified and dealt with by agencies with greater resources to take on large scale fires.

Perhaps this is the way to start before the haze crisis becomes too huge to handle, causing innumerable health problems, not to mention fatalities. Time to act Malaysia.

Also read:

Haze – community policing a way out


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