Hazy road ahead

I am sitting at my local mamak, drinking my teh “c” kosong and trying not to cough through my thosai, which smells and feels burnt even though it’s really not. It’s due to the hazy “flavour”, of course. The last air pollutant index (API) reading (from the Department of the Environment Air Pollutant Index of Malaysia at http://apims.doe.gov.my/public_v2/api_table.html) an hour ago was 156.

My dad has been coughing for the past few days, unable to even comfortably navigate the porch without going into a coughing fit. My neighbour is having an asthma attack every couple of hours.

 

It’s been a hazy Hari Malaysia weekend and one can’t help but wonder, if anybody is worried about it at all (after all, things must be worse in Putrajaya with the API reading at 203 putting it well into the red zone).

The haze is back with full vengeance, and as I am always fond of saying, “It’s yet another health problem in which the health professionals have no role in at all; except at treating the end-effects to the population including themselves.”

The haze is not a new thing for us Malaysians; yet even as I write this so casually, I am thinking to myself, this is yet another unacceptable health condition which we have somehow become accustomed to.

Environmental disasters are catastrophic events which happen to the environment due to human activity, as opposed to natural disasters. The operational keyword for something to be termed a disaster is the word “sudden”. Environmental disasters that are sudden are things like the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. The haze is NOT something that we can term as an environmental disaster any more. Why?

Here’s why. The first documented episode of the haze was in 1997. That was 22 years ago. Putting it into perspective: a baby born that year would almost be done with his or her university education by now.

Repeats of the haze were seen in the following years including severe cases in 2005, 2006 and in 2015. It’s an annual occurrence that no one looks forward to but is forced to participate in.

The cost? In financial terms, the 1997 event was estimated to have cost RM36 billion ringgit (at US$1=RM4) while the 2015 event was estimated to have cost almost RM140 billion (yes, you read that right) to the Indonesian government alone!

The health costs are also staggering. The haze causes upper respiratory illnesses, acute conjunctivitis and a host of other health conditions and complications. In a controversial study, a Harvard-Columbia study estimated that the 2015 haze event had caused more than 100,000 deaths, with 90% of them in Indonesia; a claim refuted strongly by Indonesian, Singapore and Malaysian authorities.

It’s easy to refute the absolute numbers from the 2015 event but it’s difficult to deny that this was not an event of momentous impact.

Maybe 100,000 people did not die, but some people definitely did, and for sure, a lot of people had various forms of haze-related illnesses.

Maybe RM140 billion was not spent in total, but for sure a heck of a lot of money was spent by various governments and individuals (including in hospital bills and buying face masks).

What happened from all these recurring haze events, year after year since 1997? Two big changes on a governmental level.

First, the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, a legally binding agreement by Asean countries to reduce haze pollution which came into effect in 2002 and which was finally ratified by Indonesia in 2014.

This is an agreement for signatory nations to work together to monitor and prevent the haze. However, this “hazy treaty” remains a toothless tiger, with no proper procedures in terms of enforcement mechanisms or resolving disputes pertaining to the haze.

Second, Singapore passed the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act in 2014, which criminalises companies in or outside Singapore from taking part in activities contributing to the haze in Singapore.

The act allows Singapore to fine companies up to about RM300,000 a day (S$100,000) for every day the company is found to be guilty of contributing to unhealthy levels of haze pollution in Singapore. Interestingly, this act or any version of it does not exist in Malaysia.

Fast forward to 2019. What has changed? Nothing. The blame game started the moment the haze began. In fact, everyone from us to the Indonesians have been busy blaming each other.

The most recent update is that the Indonesian environment minister has sealed off plantation land belonging to some Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian companies, of course putting forward the contention that the haze is really not Indonesia’s fault alone.

On the Malaysian side, this has, of course been met with indignation including the contention that the Malaysian companies or their local subsidiaries have done no wrong.

Some colleagues of mine have even brought forward a proposal that the Malaysian government should bring a lawsuit worth a symbolic RM1 against the government of Indonesia at the International Court of Justice for a legally binding perpetual commitment to prevent future forest fires.

The proposed lawsuit has its foundations on the premise that the Indonesian government has both a moral and legal responsibility for the haze, something in which the government is in a kerfuffle of sorts over admitting due to the political pressure and domestic discontent this may cause.

This has already been seen in Indonesia’s pointing out that “Malaysia is not being transparent about its own forest fires”, a clear attempt to devolve the narrative, be it true or not.

The truth is this: we, namely Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand and our other Asian neighbours, live too close to each other to ever be able to separate our issues, be they environmental or otherwise.

Assigning blame to Indonesia might be a bitter case of a Pyrrhic victory, with the losers being all of us citizens of Asean who continue to choke in the haze.

No government ever wants to make its people suffer and let’s not forget, as bad as the haze is here in Malaysia and in Singapore, it’s the Indonesians who are suffering the most both physically and financially.

So what can we do? Sign yet another online petition blaming Indonesia? Or just trudge on with our daily lives, albeit while wearing an N95 mask and cursing loudly about the haze?

Allow me to share in the next instalment what we can do to navigate the hazy road ahead together.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.