The recurring haze


Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) and CAP are highly concerned about the regular recurrence of haze which appears to have become a fact of life in our country.  And yet the truth is that haze is a man-made problem which can be averted.

In the past week air pollution on certain days and in particular locations such as in Seberang Jaya, Penang and Miri, Sarawak reached unhealthy levels.

It has been 15 years since the region witnessed one of its worst environmental, economic and health disasters where air pollutants reached extremely hazardous levels. Nearly 70 million people had been affected by the haze in 1997 when around 5 million hectares of land, including forests, grasslands and plantations burned. A severe El Nino had worsened the already unbearable situation and the population were at risk of haze-related illnesses.

While the current situation has not reached such dangerous levels, Malaysians are still exposed to the annual haze caused by the exact same problems that induced the 1997 catastrophe.

Transboundary smoke from land and forest fires in Indonesia during the traditional dry period between June and October has been a major cause of haze in Malaysia in the past few decades.

The haze issue can not only be blamed on our neighbouring country, as Malaysian plantation companies based in Indonesia have also been responsible for multiple haze episodes. If we are to eradicate this yearly problem, companies must be made liable for the damage and harm they are causing.

If demonstrators who allegedly caused loss and damage can be sued by the authorities, we see no reason why no action is being taken against Malaysian companies which cause such irreparable damage and harm.

In 2002, ASEAN governments signed an Agreement on Transboundary Haze, which provided guidelines for the prevention and monitoring of transboundary haze pollution. Countries who signed the agreement had to ensure that any exploitation of their resources must not cause any harm or damage to human health or the environment of other States. However such issues are not being dealt with effectively and violators of the agreement are not being penalised.

The major problem has been that Indonesia has yet to ratify the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.  SAM and CAP would like to urge the Malaysian government to intensify its efforts to get the Indonesian government to commit itself to tackling the haze problem and living up to its obligations.  If this cannot be done within the framework of ASEAN, then the government should consider resorting to alternative legal and diplomatic solutions outside this framework.

On its part, the government should also take steps to stop indiscriminate practices that exacerbate air pollution.  It is important that the Malaysian government initiates an effective task force in order to ensure that such precautions are strictly followed, and hold those who flout the laws accountable.

As for official information of the extent of air pollution, it is vital that the Air Pollutant Index (API) readings that are displayed in the Department of Environment’s website be widely disseminated through the media with frequent announcements made so that the public, particularly the vulnerable and elderly can take precautionary measures.

SAM and CAP strongly feel that the API readings should be similarly disseminated throughout the year and not only during periods of haze.  It should be an integral part of the information in daily weather bulletins as many in the country who suffer from respiratory and other illnesses require such information to ensure that they take the necessary precautions to safeguard their health.

Letter to the Editor, 25 June 2012