Haze 2013: Situation and Solutions

Winds carry smoke from hotspots in Sumatra to Malaysia and Singapore.

Winds carry smoke from hotspots in Sumatra to Malaysia and Singapore.

Fires from the Sumatran islands have affected both Singapore and Malaysia as dry winds are carrying smoke towards the east. Singaporeans have reacted in a wide range of ways from fury and disgust to humor. As much as I thought that dengue was going to be the health concern of 2013 for our island city, it is the haze, at its record levels, that will take the centre stage.  This unfortunate event is our SARS of 2013. It is one that may not be immediately deadly on the more vulnerable parts of the population but its impact is greater because it affects everyone as compared to SARS.

 

 

The Situation

Based on news reports worldwide, it is in everyone’s interest to put out the fires. It is easy to simply blame Indonesia (and I do believe that Indonesia should bear a significant portion of the blame) but let us put this blame game behind and focus on the issue for now.

 

Save your anger for those who started the fires and for those who failed to enforce the law and remember the many innocent Indonesians that are suffering greater than we are.

 

 

Whether you live in Singapore or Malaysia or Indonesia, you have an immediate need to put out the raging fires to stop the haze. At ground zero, plantations are being burnt and there is a very real danger that residential homes are next in line. Think of the fires in Australia, this is the tropical version. Indonesians in those areas face a greater danger to their health in terms of smoke inhalation and their lives are in immediate risk because of the uncontrollable fires.

Save your anger for those who started the fires and for those who failed to enforce the law and remember the many innocent Indonesians that are suffering greater than we are and have a very dire need to see the flames put out. To be frank, Singaporeans are suffering the least as compared to the Indonesians and the Malaysians. But of course this does not mean we sit around and just take it as it is.

 

 

Solutions

It is difficult to solve this issue. Remember that Indonesia an extremely large country with over 18,000 islands. Law enforcement becomes problematic at this scale. We tend to think that everyone is like Singapore but we need to remember that not everyone is lucky enough to be as small as Singapore. We have our disadvantages of being tiny but we also reap significant benefits in that our island is easy to govern and police. I reckon, that if we put the Singapore Police Force in Sumatra, they too will have significant problems ensuring that no one breaks the law.

 

To put this in perspective for an urbanized population like ours, the fires in Sumatra are akin to those occurring on the basement two levels in shopping malls.

 

The dry weeks that we have faced only serves to make things more difficult as it is easier for fires to spread and more difficult for anyone to put it out. The fires are not ones that are above ground. They are 3 to 4 m below ground level. To put this in perspective for an urbanized population like ours, the fires in Sumatra are akin to those occurring on the basement two levels in shopping malls.

Firefighters on the ground cannot get too close because of the intensity and the fact that the fire may have already spread under the very ground they are now standing on. How efficient is water bombing then? The underground fire is also is why rain seeding and water bombing will have limited effect. The amount of water that is generated from these solutions is not sufficient to completely flush out the fires. We need an extended storm and you are looking at 8-12 hours of heavy rain at this point. Even if you summon the entire squadrons of aircraft from all 3 countries, the amount of water they can carry and dump cannot compare to the amount of rain we need. I am sure the rain we need will come in the coming week. This is basically a guess but we are due a downpour after these dry weeks.

 

Indonesians themselves have criticized their own government in their local media.

 

 

We should also look at long term solutions. I usually offer a few but not in this case. Due to the aforementioned scale and the costs and benefits of private owners in carrying out the slash and burn option, we have a problem that no one can solve. Indonesians themselves have criticized their own government in local media but put yourself in the shoes of the Indonesian government – what can you actually do? It is difficult to justify the cost of ramping up law enforcement by a huge magnitude just to deal with a seasonal problem. The second question will be if there is sufficient funds to do so.

Economists have suggested using a price mechanism to deal with this. Fines can be used or inversely monetary incentives. Either ways the money flow will be long and tedious while being subject to corruption at many levels. We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. At this point, we can only ride it out.

 

 

Stay Safe

The haze should last another week and we will probably need two rounds of rain to make headway against this problem. At this point, it is important to keep hydrated and this means drinking more water and getting more baths at the same time. Don’t forget that the particles are not just inhaled, they also sit on your skin. It will also be a good time to ramp up house cleaning to get rid of the dust. Think of the haze as a situation where you live in an industrial area. Trust me I know this, I live in Jurong. Keep your body and surroundings clean.

 

Keep your body and surroundings clean.

 

Depending on the individual’s health status, mask up if you have to go out. A normal mask does nothing to filter the particles. Yes it reduces the smell a little but what we need to stop are the PM 2.5 particles which will easily pass through normal face masks. Get the N95 types, and if you can find get those with air valves. The valves make it significantly easier to breathe and so wearing these N95 variants for an extended period of time becomes more comfortable.

Don’t panic over PSI numbers. Stick to these measures on anything below 500. When it hits 500, you probably have to lock yourself in and switch on the aircon and air purifiers. But at this point, the British stiff upper lip and the overused phrase will be necessary.

Keep Calm and Carry On.

 

 

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