Lack of outcry over slow poisoning by the haze is astonishing

The familiar acrid smell is back in the air. So is the familiar blame-game. So too the string of statements about action being taken.

What is amazing really is that people are going about their life as usual, without any significant expression of anger over the annual haze tragedy. We may complain to family or friends about not being able to go for the morning walk or about the reduction in visibility or the smell, but most of us have accepted it as inevitable.

Well I suppose we get used to what we cannot change or think we cannot change. Or perhaps we don’t see the danger enough to gather in numbers to change the situation, as Malaysians did in the 2018 general election.

Why aren’t the protectors of the realm and religion and rights – such as those who marched to protest against the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination – making any noise about the recurring haze that is slowly poisoning our people?

Every time the haze swamps us, we learn that the number of patients at hospitals and clinics increases. On Sept 22, for instance, the director-general of health Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said the number of patients seeking treatment for conjunctivitis, asthma and skin rashes had gone up by 40% nationwide.

According to a study published by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) last year, Malaysia lost RM1.57 billion in healthcare and loss of income opportunities in 2013 due to the haze caused by forest fires in Indonesia.

A separate UKM study on the impact of the 2005 haze estimated that about RM1.8 million was spent just on patients seeking hospital admission for smoke-related illnesses.

In an April 1998 paper presented at the Proceedings of the National Symposium on the Impact of Haze, Mohd Shahwahid Othman, Mohd Nasir Hassan and Jamal Othman estimated the short-term costs of the haze between August and October 1997 at RM800 million.

Shahwahid and Nasir, of Universiti Putra Malaysia, and Jamal of UKM, said the RM800 million comprised short-term health costs, production losses, tourism-related losses, and cost of avertive action. The study did not cover long-term costs, such as damage to health and impact on investments.

Admitting that the cost reported was likely to be underestimated, the researchers said something very significant: “The resources lost to Malaysia as a result of the haze could have financed all of the federal government’s social programmes for the last three years. Malaysia’s expenditure on cloud seeding alone would have been enough to establish a 32ha nature park and maintain it for 15 years.”

I’ve seen a longer than usual queue at two private clinics near my house, and I believe this is the scene in other places too. Most of us are aware of the short-term health risks –such as eye and throat irritation, breathing difficulty and rashes. But what about the long-term effects?

Doctors say breathing in the haze particulates will have a long-lasting – and deleterious – effect on the lungs, especially if it happens over an extended period of time. They say it could lead to lung cancer, heart attacks and stunted physical and mental development in young children.

Now, that is scary.

So, why are we not agitating against the annual haze that is sending more people to hospitals and clinics? I can think of two reasons: nobody is dying in front of our eyes, and therefore we do not see it as a threat; and as the fires are in Indonesia, we feel there is nothing we can do.

Well, we can pressure the government to apply pressure on Indonesia to clean up its act and to punish any Malaysian firm that may have contributed to the haze. NGOs can seek the assistance of NGOs in Indonesia to convince Jakarta to do more. The public can use social media to urge for better enforcement both here and in Indonesia, but in a civil manner.

Indonesia’s national disaster agency said 328,724 hectares of land were burnt there between January and August this year. But before we jump on Indonesia, let us not forget that there are also some – certainly very much fewer – hotspots in Malaysia too.

According to the Asean Specialised Meteorogical Centre there were a total of 48 hotspots in Sabah and Sarawak and 12 in the peninsula between Sept 16 and Sept 22. In Kalimantan and Sumatra, however, the daily hotspots run in the hundreds.

Malaysia and other Asean member countries woke up to the haze-causing forest fires in the 1980s. I don’t expect many people to recall the forest fires in East Kalimantan and Sabah in 1982-1983 which ravaged about 3.2 million hectares and almost 1 million hectares of land respectively in Kalimantan and Sabah. To give perspective, the land burnt in Kalimantan was about the size of Taiwan.

Asean members initiated meetings and workshops in subsequent years to tackle the haze problem, resulting in the establishment of the Haze Technical Task Force in 1995. In 1997, they came up with a Regional Haze Action Plan to “prevent land and forest fires through better management policies and enforcement”. They also signed the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002.

Malaysia and Indonesia even signed a Memorandum of Understanding in June 2008 to fight forest fires in the Riau Province of Indonesia.

Jakarta has for years promised its complaining neighbours that it will take more effective measures to curb the burning of the forests by farmers practicing shifting cultivation and plantation owners clearing land to plant oil palm. In fact, in September 2015, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said he needed at least three years to tackle the haze.

I hope Widodo realises it is now 2019, and the year is coming to an end.

I understand this is not a small matter that can be resolved fast, given the vast areas of forests to police. I also understand that forest fires have been a regular feature in Indonesia for centuries and that poor farmers often resort to this as it is the cheapest way to clear land for agriculture. I understand, too, that Indonesia has taken measures over the years to end its annual unwanted export to its neighbours.

The efforts of Indonesia and Asean have certainly improved their ability to predict and monitor fires but that is not enough. Indonesia has to prevent these unwanted fires and to effectively combat them when they do occur. Indonesia has to put an end to the practice of clearing forests to plant crops, including oil palm.

Indonesian authorities have, in recent years, accused some Malaysian oil palm companies with plantations in Kalimantan of having contributed to its forest fires. The Malaysian government has been talking about punishing such companies for about a decade now but has lacked the willpower to promulgate laws to act against them. I wonder if this is because these corporate giants may be pally with government leaders or the ruling parties, especially, you know, during elections.

I hope Malaysian authorities learn from the Indonesian experience and ensure they prevent land here from being cleared for oil palm or other crops or for so-called development projects that may be good for the economy in the short term but prove disastrous in the long term. They should also limit logging activities.

Charles Victor Barber and James Schweithelm in their book “Trial by Fire: Forest Fires and Forestry Policy in Indonesia’s Era of Crisis and Reform” note the findings of a field study of the 1983 Kalimantan fire that “it was not the drought which caused this huge fire, it was the changed condition of the forest” due to widespread and reckless logging in the previous decade.

They write: “Logging transformed the fire-resistant primary rainforest into a degraded and fire prone ecosystem. The drought then set the state for catastrophe as ‘small agricultural fires… escaped their bounds into nearby dry secondary and logged-over forests’”.

I note that there are plenty of logging activities going on in the country in the name of economic development, some of which have impacted the lives of indigenous people. States such as Sabah, Sarawak, Kelantan and Perak should take note.

Although environment-loving NGOs and some individuals have voiced concern about the impact of logging activities, there is no concerted effort to pressure state governments to better manage forest resources.

The outcry is missing; just as it is missing from the suffering and long-term effects of the annual haze.

A Kathirasen is an executive editor at FMT.

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.