Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The haze

The haze from above
One thing I was warned about before my visit to Malaysia was the haze. The haze looks like fog or mist. It is in fact the dispersed smoke of fires burning in Indonesia that are blown across the ocean to settle on the Malaysian Peninsular (and other places) like a soft, choking blanket.

About one in twenty people are wearing face masks and some days are worse than others (today was a mask day for me). When it rains the haze clears a little, and on higher ground it's not so bad, but it is not good for anyone.

I was told that the haze is not just affecting people by causing increased respiratory problems but must be affecting the wildlife too. The lack of sunshine has also affected vegetable crops and the vegetables are smaller, and increasing in price.

Afternoon sunshine, filtered
The haze is something I had heard about, but didn't know much about. The forest fires that are burning in Indonesia are not just the clearance of forest that is burned and then goes out - the fires are burning on peat and go into the ground, with thick, intense smoke pouring out for months.

This is a multiple tragedy - not only are people and animals suffering from the smoke, but we are losing irreplaceable rain forest to 'slash and burn' land clearance for palm oil farming.

A typical day here the air quality rating is perhaps around 150. Anything above 100 is 'concerning', and in some areas it's nearly up to 200. Schools are being closed - children not allowed to go out.

I can't help wondering what the long-term effect of this will be. The fires have been burning for months and there is talk of it not ending before March next year - and then it starts all over again just a few months later.  My friend who lives in Kalimantan, where the fires are, says that they have been burning since August. All those months of reduced sunlight, of breathing air full of particles that damage people and animals in ways we just don't know. Will we see a long term impact beyond the obvious? I wonder what effect it has on women (and animals) that are pregnant, and on the plants. We rely on a balanced ecosystem that is being perverted by humanity in ways beyond our imagination.

The haze compounds Kuala Lumpur's
existing emissions problems
The forests are being cleared so that more palm oil can be grown. Palm oil is in thousands of products - many of which we use almost every day. The increase in palm oil plantations is fragmenting forest habitat, further endangering species like Tiger and orangutans.

In a local paper I saw an article that said something along the lines of  'Why should we change our farming practices just because consumers thousands of miles away tell us to?' We are the problem. We are the ones consuming at ever increasing rates.  'We are operating on a planet overdraft' - consuming a year's ecological budget in just nine months. Current consumption levels are not sustainable, and we don't have another planet for when this one 'runs out'.

The haze is something I didn't really know about - but in experiencing it, and in learning more, I am once more reminded that together we must adopt sustainable habits and practices that means there will be a green planet for us and future generations. We have to change now, or expect to fulfill an apocalyptic vision of dark skies and poisoned air.

Further reading:
Biggest environmental crime
Fire outbreaks could be producing more daily emissions than the entire US economy
see also LA Times article
Wikipedia explanation
Schools closed indefinitely
The haze in China
Sustainable palm oil

Other stories on Malaysia in this blog:
A typical English Village
First report from the field
The city of cats

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