The Vice President of Indonesia, Jusuf Kalla, recently made this comment: “Look at how long they have enjoyed fresh air from our green environment and forests when there were no fires. Could be months. Are they grateful? But when forest fires occur, a month at the most, haze pollutes their regions. So why should there be an apology?”
This comment is not only insensitive to the residents of Singapore, but also to Indonesians living around the area impacted by fires. For the last few years, Singapore has been complaining about the annual haze season that is induced by one nation – Indonesia. The haze has had a significant impact on the daily lives of people living in Singapore,and so far as we can remember, Singapore has never demanded an apology. It has only offered to help.
Satellite imagery clearly shows us that this haze originates only from Indonesia. The islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Borneo are being ravaged by forest fires, which has caused the Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) in immediate neighborhoods to increase to levels of around 2000 units. PSI above 300 is considered to be hazardous by all standards.
The irony is that the worst affected are Indonesian citizens themselves. Whilst the haze has dissipated to PSI levels of around 340 by the time it reaches Singapore, it is still in the hazardous range. I therefore can but sympathise with each of the 135,000 Indonesian citizens that are suffering from haze induced respiratory illnesses.
Apart from the economic impact induced by the aftermath of the haze (in the form of medical treatments, lower productivity and overall seizure of the economy), there is the environmental impact to be considered. The forest fires are sweeping clean the habitats of endemic Orangutans, Tigers, pygmy elephants, and Sumatran rhinos. Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world, has also declared an emergency status in the province of Riau due to the exacerbating effect of the haze.
Moving past the Indonesian borders, the haze has had an extremely bad effect on surrounding South-east Asian countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Thailand. Hundreds of flights, tournaments, and trips have been cancelled due to this event, which can only be called a catastrophe. We have not even begun to count the resultant revenue losses.
Living in Singapore, which also happens to be the second worst affected country after Indonesia itself, I am noticing changes firsthand. As I write this, the PSI has risen to very unhealthy levels (200+ units). Looking out of the window, visibility has dropped to about 500 meters from the normal 10-15 kilometres. Also, the first school closure took place on 25th September 2015 when all primary and secondary schools were closed due to PSI reaching hazardous levels of 341 units. At this level, the National Environmental Agency of Singapore advised no outdoor activities at all.
Any time I step out of my house, I am compelled to wear an uncomfortable mask – but as the levels increased, I was sceptical about the effectiveness of the mask. I dared to glance out of the window that day and the placidity of the streets, that on normal days were flooded with people, was plain ineffable. Increasing haze is also threatening economic conditions as people choose not to attend jobs in an atmosphere so polluted, because stepping outside can permanently affect a person’s lungs.
Respiratory illnesses like the ones in Indonesia are on the rise. Some local doctors are predicting a 20% increase in respiratory problems in the coming weeks. The individuals most susceptible to respiratory conditions are the youngest and the eldest of the population, showing how the elderly and young in our country are paying a hefty price for a deed they did not even commit. While the Singapore Government is trying to do it’s best to prevent outbreaks of these illnesses by distributing about 5 million N95 masks around the country, the problem of haze is not even near to being solved in the region.
Whilst it is appreciated that Indonesia is trying to combat forest fires in the islands of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Borneo, its government has stated that, even with the deployment of about 21,000 firefighting troops in these hotspots, Indonesia is struggling to douse the disastrous flames. It is therefore clear that Indonesia needs help, and needs to cooperate with its neighbours to prevent, what could become an international calamity.
The Vice President of Indonesia mentioned that Singapore needs to stop talking and start helping, which is true. But effective help can be provided only when it is accepted by the other side. On one hand, Indonesia is requesting for help from other countries, but on the other, it has rejected Singapore’s help for the third time now. The Indonesian Government backs itself up with the argument that any help from Singapore would be too little. It needs to understand that ANY help at all right now, would be at the least, beneficial.
Thus, if Singapore is willing to sacrifice some of its military equipment to extinguish Indonesian fires, our help should be willingly accepted. The only way this problem can be resolved is through cooperation and collective effort, not conflict and distrust.
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