4 Reasons to Pay Attention to the Deadly Haze in Southeast Asia this Year

October 7, 2015 | 4:45 pm
Lael Goodman
Former contributor

Residents in Southeast Asia are currently being subjected to a heavy blanket of smoke and haze spreading across the region. The haze originates in large part from the burning of forests and peat soils in order to prepare land for agriculture, such as palm oil. But reading news reports and even seeing pictures cannot always convey the daily experience in the way that first-hand accounts can. The poem below was written by a 15-year-old Malaysian poet named Gloson about the 2013 haze episode and describes that haze’s effect on his everyday life.

Our land has been hit by the annual haze,

it’s sending nasal systems into a craze.

’cause forests in Sumatra have been burned with a blaze.

So now we get haze for several days.

The PSI has hit a record of four-oh-one.

It hasn’t been a gentleman to health and to fun,

outdoors, the Gangnam Style cannot be done.

(sorry, I couldn’t help avoiding the pun).

People are staying home indoors like crazy.

They sit in their sofas and full-blast the AC.

The outdoor guys, well, they don surgical masks

to carry out outdoor allergical tasks.

Nasal jammed.

Yellow phlegm.

Indoors crammed.

What a shame.

But don’t you worry, friends,

because it all will soon be fine.

Even the thickest haze will end

and the sun will shine.

This poem depicts an unpleasant reality where this young boy has to stay inside at all times with air-conditioned (and thus filtered) air. He has nasal and phlegm issues, and identifies the PSI level (Pollution Standards Index which is used in Singapore to rate air quality levels) as being at 401 – where anything over 300 is labeled as hazardous. While the poem ends on a positive note, “Even the thickest haze will end// and the sun will shine”, the fact of the matter is that before it ends, haze will have contributed to premature deaths, illness, and economic loss – only to more than likely return again next year, and the year after.

soccer haze

This photo taken in 2013, shows a young boy playing outside in heavy haze, a hazard to human health. Photo: Firdaus Latif

Sit up and pay attention

Earlier this year, UCS released a report detailing the harmful health and economic effects of landscape fires and the resulting haze.  In that report, we took a close look at some of the results of the 1997-1998 haze event, as well as the more recent 2013 event about which this poem was written. Though the haze is now expected to occur annually, the 2015 haze event that is happening right now is particularly important for a number of reasons.

What makes this year different? I’ll tell you.

  1. It’s an El Niño year, and a strong one at that. This naturally occurring climatic phenomenon leaves Southeast Asia extra dry. In fact, the last few El Niño events have correlated with some of the largest haze events in the region and this year is likely to be no exception. Less rain and a longer dry season means fires are more likely to spread out of control, burning huge swaths of land and spewing pollutants into the atmosphere.
  2. This is the first full haze season since Indonesia ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in September of 2014. As the country where many of the fires burn, Indonesia’s participation could fundamentally change the efficacy of this initiative.
  3. This is also the first full haze season with a new President of Indonesia. Joko “Jokowi” Widodo took the presidential reins of Indonesia on October 20, 2014. Recently, Jokowi has been touring the country, observing how fires are being handled and has indicated his dedication to punishing those responsible.
  4. This is the first full haze season since Singapore passed the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act to hold entities responsible for haze, even if the haze originates outside of Singapore. It remains to be seen if this law will be useful in holding actors responsible for the haze or if it will turn out to be a mostly symbolic law.

New science

Aside from these atmospheric events and political maneuverings, in the past year there has also been new research highlighting palm oil’s contribution to the haze. Marlier et al. traced the 2006 haze in two Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan. Palm oil concessions play a large role in both islands, and account for 67% of all concession-based emissions.

And with evidence that around 110,000 deaths yearly in Southeast Asia can be attributed to particulate matter exposure from these fires (even higher during El Niño years such as 2015), it remains vital that resources continue to be dedicated to stop the haze. In fact, reduced deforestation and deforestation related fires in Brazil have recently been shown to save lives in South America. Why shouldn’t the same be true in Southeast Asia?

Looking to the future

It is true, like the poem says, the haze will someday disappear and the sun will reemerge.  But unless destructive burning practices cease, this respite is likely to only be until the next haze season when millions of kids like Gloson will be sequestered indoors, unable to play or breathe freely.