When water saved us from the air
As a thick haze settled on Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Southern Thailand in October 2006, air quality plummeted to unhealthy levels and residents suffered from respiratory problems and eye infections. Outdoor activities had to be curtailed and most people stayed indoors. Air traffic and tourism were affected. Uncontrolled burning from “slash and burn” cultivation in Indonesia raised enormous amounts of smoke which was spread by the wind to neighbouring countries. Angry residents inundated newspapers with letters and asked how long this would go on. With visibility less than half a kilometre, the skylines of cities like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur looked ghostly.
All fingers pointed towards Indonesia which was accused of not taking any action to control forest fires. This was not the first such incident. It seemed as if the 1997 haze scenario was being replayed.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed his disappointment to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono over the recurring haze problem. Malaysians also conveyed their displeasure strongly to Indonesia. The Malaysian Environment Minister Azmi Khalid said “Frustration is an understatement”, directed toward Indonesia. There was also a protest in front of the Indonesia embassy in Kuala Lumpur, organized by local political parties.
In the midst of this, some highly placed Indonesians said that not just their neighbours but the whole world owed them for the oxygen produced by their forests, yet this had never been acknowledged.
Indonesia’s President has since apologised to neighbouring countries for the haze problem. However he says, “Violations by plantation companies are still happening in the form of illegal land clearance,” in a news report.
It was not clear whether poor farmers had started the fire or big corporations. Obviously, it is cheaper for a poor farmer to use a matchstick rather than use expensive forest clearing equipment. But big corporations are not exactly above using crude measures to clear forests.
A thousand firefighters battled the fires in vain. Once forest fires start in different locations, it is near impossible to fight them effectively. Only one simple phenomenon can stop them – rainfall. It was with feverish anticipation that pollution-hit residents waited for rainfall this October. The monsoon took a longer time to arrive this time, almost as if it wanted to teach a lesson to humans who were disregarding nature. However, the rains did come to the aid of the suffering denizens and rendered an invaluable service – it dissolved the haze and restored the air quality in Singapore and Malaysia to healthy levels.
All was well again and the haze was forgotten. Of course, no one even thought about the pollutants in air that were transferred to water.