Saturday, October 14, 2006

Living in the haze.

I'm in Singapore right now for work. This is the final stop on a week-and-a-half of conferences and customer meetings in Asia.

I've been to Singapore only once before. This is my first time to visit late in the year, and my first exposure to an annual problem that the locals call "the haze."

"Haze" is a polite name for an ugly problem. What's happening is that developers and farmers are setting fires in the equatorial jungles and forests of Indonesia, in order to clear land for crops or building. Once those fires are set, they generally continue to burn until the rainy season extinquishes them. A fire set by a small farmer, who is able to farm only a few acres himself, may burn thousands of acres before it's extinguished.

The problem began in the 1990s and has gotten steadily worse since. At this point, Singapore expects to breathe the smoke from Indonesia every October. Locals hope for winds that shift north or south to avoid the country, and an early start to the rainy season. Meanwhile, mothers in masks walk children in sealed strollers down smoky city streets.

Right now, the fires burning in the Kalimantan region of Borneo are producing a thick flume of smoke. That smoke is actually so bad that visibility in Jakarta is just five hundred meters, causing all sorts of problems, including airplane accidents. Prevailing winds carry the smoke across the water and over Singapore. Visibility here is between two and five kilometers, according to offical news sites this morning. Just looking out my hotel room window, I would bet more on two than on five.

The smoke is thick, with a sickly-sweet charred smell as you walk along the streets outside. It burns your eyes and throat. You can taste it. The Singaporean government measures the density of particulates in the air in order to monitor health threats. One hundred parts per million is considered to be unhealthy; today, the number is between one hundred twenty and one hundred thirty-five, depending on which news site you visit.

This is an annual problem in the region, my friends here tell me. The issue is that there is no clear will to stop the clearing of tropical forests -- despite the terrible environmental toll and the public health issues, the governments of the countries that create this problem tolerate it.

Clearly, economics are a big part of the problem. Farmers with few other options who need to feed their families are taking desperate measures to do it. I understand from the locals that corruption is also a problem. Developers looking to clear land flout the law, and pay fines or bribes to avoid any serious consequences.

It is really asonishing to me that a country as developed as Singapore has a chronic environmental problem of this kind. Obviously, it matters a great deal who your neighbors are. The governments of the region really must work together to stop the burning of forests. They must educate the farmers of the region, and offer them economic support, to make the fires unnecessary. They must also enforce laws already on the books, with heavy penalties for offenders.

First, though, I think we need to name the problem honestly. This isn't haze. People here -- adults, the elderly, small children -- are breathing the smoke from burned animals and trees. It is an awful stink of destruction, blowing into one of the world's richest countries from one of the world's poorest. It is an unmistakable message from one of the world's most diverse and productive, and profoundly threatened, ecosystems.


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