Welcome to Malaysia, land of the haze!

Welcome to Malaysia, land of the haze!

17 March 2014

published by www.malaysiakini.com

Malaysia — I wake up in the morning and I take in a deep breath of smog. I look outside and a film of haze coats the surroundings.

Just like Beijing. The rising sun is an orange orb in a grey sky. As was yesterday’s setting sun. Orange equals particulate matter in the atmosphere – lots of it. Great.

I walk to the kitchen and the whole house smells of smoke. I turn on the air-conditioning to clear the air. I wonder how much this month’s electric bill will be. Since January, my bill has doubled. Thanks, Tenaga Nasional Bhd. Perhaps it will triple this month?

With the air-conditioners in overdrive, I will need to pay to service them soon. The last haze was a mere five months ago. The next could be in, what, another five months?

Drink more when it is hazy, I remind myself. But looking at my containers of collected water, I also remind myself I should do my bit to save water. After all, the water supply is cut every two days – in a country where the climate technically “has no dry season”.

Incidentally, whenever the water comes back on, I let out a ridiculous cheer. As if it were manna from heaven rather than something I had a basic right to.

I phone my aged parents and remind them to keep the windows closed and not go for their tai chi.

They don’t have air-conditioning and I am beginning to think that they should have it installed if their septuagenarian and octogenarian lungs are going to be regularly subjected to polluted air four to five months a year. I wonder about the people who cannot afford air-conditioning.

I check the Air Pollution Index readings. Moderate in my town. So why is my housing estate so smoky? Someone must be doing open burning nearby.

Yes, we can’t blame the Indonesians this time. Local open burning is the main source of the haze, say authorities. It is particularly bad in agricultural land but is also happening in construction sites and industrial areas.

And there are other sources of pollution: forest fires, peat fires, emission from vehicles and smoke from industries.

But there’s something off here. We are feeling the effects of this pollution because it has not been raining. But shouldn’t this pollution be at the lowest levels at all times, and not just during dry periods?

When irresponsible Malaysians pollute, are the authorities doing enough in terms of not only monitoring and enforcing legal compliance but charging culprits in court? What about public education and awareness?

And what is the story with peat land? Peat fires are toxic, ferocious and a beast to quell because they burn underground. How much peat land has been drained, is being drained and is being eyed for future drainage.

What water and water-table management has been or is being done? Any at all? Year after year, intransigent land-owners have been openly burning their plots and the government has been threatening to take action.

Of course, this dry spell has been unusually long and severe. However, it does raise the uneasy spectre of climate change. Does this ‘spell’ augur more unprecedented climate-related events?

And, how ready are Malaysians and the government, not just for prolonged droughts and widespread fire but for massive floods as well? Will there be leadership, preparedness, finances and good communication?

I can’t help remembering how, when the haze first hit Malaysia in 1997, the government went into information shutdown and denial mode, citing that “we shouldn’t scare away the tourists”. It took the government ages to open up and finally come up with a National Haze Action Plan.

Since then, this plan has been dutifully activated annually. This year, they might get to do it twice.

As for the rest of us, we remain accommodating and adaptable and resign ourselves to becoming a nation of N95 mask-wearers – but with smiles black-marked onto the masks to show we are a warm and friendly people, particularly when saying to VMY2014 tourists, “Selamat datang ke Malaysia!”


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