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Malaysia haze takes its toll

Schools in the capital Kuala Lumpur and surrounding Selangor have been closed and children advised to stay indoors.
Last modified: 24 Jun 2013 15:12

It's been 16 years (think it was 1997 but better check wasn't 98) since Indonesian forest fires first shrouded Singapore and Malaysia in a smoky, choking cloud of pollution.

In that time governments in all three countries have done an awful lot of talking about what is euphemistically known as the "haze". Asean, the regional grouping, got involved with the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution back in 2002, a document now ratified by all of Asean’s ten members, except Indonesia. But none of the talk appears to have had much impact on the ground.

As I write this, Kuala Lumpur's Twin Towers, symbol of Malaysian modernity and development, are all but invisible. The only buildings that I can see are the ones immediately next door. The rest of the city, if I can make it out at all, is an eerie, landscape of shadows.

Schools in Kuala Lumpur and surrounding Selangor state have been closed and children advised to stay indoors; even there though, the smoke seeps through window and door frames and into air-conditioned rooms. Some KL-residents have started putting on face masks before they go out in a possibly futile attempt to protect themselves – the smoke still stings the eyes, irritates the nose and sticks at the back of the throat.

The Air Pollutants Index, Malaysia's official measurement of air quality, has been climbing since Friday when a southeasterly wind began blowing the smoke cloud over the peninsular rather than Singapore which bore the brunt of the smog last week.

By Sunday, readings around KL and its suburbs were around 100. By Monday evening they were creeping towards the 200 level – bordering on "vry unhealthy"- with Port Klang, on the coast at a "azardous" 319.

Companies blamed

Spare a thought then for the people in the small town of Muar in the southern state of Johor, where the API rose to an astonishing 746 on Sunday. The town's inhabitants have the misfortune of living less than 300 kilometers from the plantations and forests that are on fire in neighbouring Indonesia. In Indonesia itself, at least one flight was forced to turn back from Pekanbaru on Monday because visibility was so bad.

Jakarta has named eight companies that it says are to blame for the fires and insists they are owned partly by investors from Malaysia and Singapore. Those companies, including Sime Darby, one of the world’s biggest planters, deny they're involved, blaming smallholders. But at least one of the companies, PT Jatim Jaya Perkasa, has been a member of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, which brings together growers and NGOs to improve environmental standards, since 2008. As part of that commitment it agreed to AVOID fire as a means to prepare land or replant.

Like much else in Southeast Asia, the problem is not the legislation; it's enforcement. Slash and burn is illegal but it' cheap and easy and plantations are often vast and in remote areas making it difficult to know what’s going on until the wind starts blowing the smoke to Indonesia and Malaysia.

Much is at stake; palm oil is a multi-billion dollar industry and a major export for both Malaysia and Indonesia. But the price of our appetite for chocolate, ice cream and soap – all of which include palm oil – shouldn't be the health and wellbeing of millions of people in Southeast Asia. It’s time for governments to turn words into action and hold companies to account. They can start by calling the “haze” what it really is; a polluting and dangerous smog.