The Toxic Haze Choking Southeast Asia

Photographer David Ford wearing one of the face masks many citizens of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia have been forced to wear.

A heavy cloud envelopes the city. Only the dim outline of towers can be seen through the fog. Roads seem to snake away eerily into nothingness. It looks rather like an alien mist from a horror movie, but sadly, this isn’t fiction. People who venture outside take proper precautions, because this is toxic smog – known in the region as “the haze.” Attributed to Indonesian forest fires, the almost yearly phenomenon brings with it a slew of environmental woes.


Image: David Ford

The outline of buildings are barely visible through the smog.

The haze is not only smelly; it’s downright dangerous. On June 21, 2013, Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) was measured at 401. Before June 2013, the worst PSI level recorded in Singapore was 226, measured around the peak of the 1997 Southeast Asian Haze disaster. To put things into perspective, any PSI rating above 200 is considered very unhealthy, while over 300 is hazardous. According to The Telegraph, more than 400 is “potentially life-threatening” to the sick and the elderly.

The Petronas Towers, photographed in 2010; the haze in 2013 is far worse.

While the haze has had a negative impact on the quality of air in Singapore, the effects are even more catastrophic in Malaysia. On June 23, a state of emergency was announced in the southern state of Johor, as PSI levels exceeded 750 – well over twice the level considered hazardous.

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Image: David Ford

These streets are usually crowded; people have been advised to stay indoors while the haze is present.

Residents of Malaysia and Singapore have been advised to take precautions. Hundreds of schools have been closed, a number of fast food delivery services are on hold and, according to the BBC, flights have been delayed in Singapore. The Singaporean military also cut back its outdoor training. Unsurprisingly, there has been a surge of patients visiting doctors with eye, skin and respiratory problems because of the toxic air in Singapore.


Image: David Ford

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A mask is an essential accessory when the haze descends.

So where does this disruptive, life-threatening haze come from? The answer to that question exposes an environmental concern: the illegal slash-and-burn practices in Indonesia. According to an Indonesian official, the current fires could possibly be traced to a 7,413-acre (3,000-hectare) area of land in the Bengkalis Regency of the Riau Province in Sumatra. This is a persistent issue in the region, and a solution desperately needs to be found. Some have called for stricter rules to be imposed in Indonesia.


Image: David Ford

The cloudy haze gives these Singapore towers a mysterious quality.

In 2013, NASA satellites were able to track the smoke from these fires as it traveled in the direction of Singapore and Malaysia. In Bengkalis, people have evacuated their homes because of the thick haze, and the flames have devastated huge areas of local farmland. So far, at least, the wind direction has kept the haze away from the rest of Indonesia.

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This looks like something out of Stephen King’s The Mist.

Slash-and-burn is an often-illegal practice used by farmers and companies to clear land as cheaply as possible. As the name implies, vegetation is chopped down and burned. In Indonesia, this technique is notably used to make way for new planting seasons on palm oil plantations.


Image: David Ford

The haze looks like fog rolling in off the sea.

These fires are particularly problematic because they often spread to peatlands, and firefighters battling these flames have a hard time extinguishing them. Peat fields are combustible, and the fires can burn up to 13 feet (four meters) beneath the surface. “We take one to two hours to clear a hectare,” the head of Riau’s natural resources conservation agency, Ahmad Saerozi, told the AFP news agency; and he added, “By then another fire has started elsewhere.”

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It’s hard to make out any landmarks through the smoky haze.

There is some controversy over exactly who’s to blame for the out-of-control fires. Singapore’s environment minister Vivian Balakrishnan called for Indonesia to fight the haze at the source. And as of June 2013, Indonesia is the only member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to have signed an agreement on transboundary haze pollution, which was established in 2002. However, Indonesia alone cannot be held responsible for the fires and resulting haze.


Image: David Ford

Even being beside the sea offers no relief from the noxious haze.

NASA provided haze data to Greenpeace, who then analyzed the fire hotspots in Sumatra. The research showed hundreds of fires in areas held by Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean companies. According to the head of Greenpeace Indonesia’s forest campaign, Bustar Maitar, “Fires across Sumatra are wreaking havoc for millions of people in the region and destroying the climate.”

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Everything in the distance is turned into monochrome by the murky smog.

“Greenpeace calls on big palm oil companies such as Malaysia-based Sime Darby and Singapore-based Wilmar International to check whether their suppliers are involved in the burning or not,” adds Maitar. Greenpeace Southeast Asia forest campaigner Yuyun Indradi suggests that it is difficult to pinpoint palm oil companies that are involved with the fires. “The lack of government transparency makes it very hard for independent monitoring: concession maps are incomplete, data is lacking and we clearly have weak enforcement of laws,” he explains.


Image: David Ford

Going to the park is unpleasant when the haze is swirling.

The oil palm companies are in turn blaming small farmers for the burning. Sime Darby released a statement saying that the company practices a zero-burning policy but suggested that it cannot stop farmers burning on their own land. However, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and foreign minister K. Shanmugam believe the fires are more likely to have been started by companies rather than smallholders. Prime Minister Lee has said that any Singaporean companies found to be connected with slash-and-burn practices “would be addressed.”

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Not much to see from the Ferris wheel today…

On the ground in Indonesia, firefighters are doing their best to battle the blazes. Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency has said that it will commence “water-bombing” action in the affected areas. The organization has also stated that it will attempt “cloud-seeding” to try and generate rain. Malaysia has said that it can provide firefighters if required, and Singapore has offered to assist with cloud-seeding by supplying aircraft.


Image: David Ford

Singapore motorists are advised to drive with caution.

But are Indonesia’s efforts to control the fires enough to appease the country’s neighbors? There is currently tension between the different countries. One Indonesian minister responded to Singapore’s demands for action by saying that Singapore “should not act like children, making all that noise.” Singapore’s Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong replied with a Facebook update saying, “The Singapore Child is being suffocated, how can he not scream?”

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Sporting activities have been put on hold.

Foreign minister Shanmugam promised to raise the issue at the ASEAN meeting being held in Brunei from June 27 to July 2, 2013. Although the haze itself is a large environmental problem that wouldn’t be wished upon any city, perhaps one positive upshot will be the focus on slash-and-burn clearing in Indonesia. Only by stopping this environmentally disastrous practice can Southeast Asia get rid of its toxic clouds.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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