The problem is hazy, but the solution is clear

Returning to Singapore after Christmas, I was struck by how clear the air was. In the months leading up to the start of the northeast monsoon, which runs from October til March, the ‘Singapore Haze’ was big news. Hardly a day went by without a newspaper headline commenting on it. The news ranged from minor irritation when people’s days out at the weekend were spoilt by a slightly hazy sky, to potential embarrassment if the F1 Singapore Grand Prix was cancelled, and actually real concern when people’s health started to be affected. For me though, the haze is just a symptom of a much larger problem, not only affecting Singapore or South-East Asia, but the health of the whole planet.

What is the haze?

Technically its air pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide and very small particulate matter. In many urbanised areas they are frequently the by-product of burning fossil fuels for heating, transportation, electricity and industry. They are also, and particularly so in South-East Asia, the result of slash and burn forest clearance, uncontrolled forest fires and the burning of agricultural waste (such as rice straw).

In South-East Asia, the principal source of the haze is forest fires on Sumatra and Kalimantan in Indonesia, made worse in the latter case by deep peat fires and the burning of rice fields after harvest. The impact of these fires and the resulting haze is worse during the dry period between May to October and when the prevailing southwest monsoon winds blow the smoke towards Singapore and Malaysia. These fires and the haze are particularly bad in El Nino years when forest fires are more prevalent.

The-Singapore-Haze-picked-up-by-the-bright-lights-of-the-Marina-Bay-Sands-Casino Photo: Stephen Browne/FFI

The severity of the haze is measured using the PSI (Pollutant Standards Index) which was developed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. This index is made up from measurements of the concentrations of the gasses and particulate matter, as mentioned above. The index is categorised so that a PSI reading of 0-50 means the air quality is good ; 51-100 moderate; 101-200 unhealthy; 201-300 very unhealthy; and above 300 hazardous.

The implications of the haze on public health are taken very seriously in Singapore and a government website run by the National Environment Agency (NEA) gives readings and advice every three hours. In recent times (Oct 2010) the highest reading recorded was 106, when NEA advice was that those with underlying conditions such as chronic heart or lung ailments may experience a mild aggravation of their symptoms and that those without underlying conditions may also experience eye irritation, sneezing or coughing. As a result those with underlying conditions were advised to reduce physical exertion and outdoor activities.

Whilst that undoubtedly caused concern for some in Singapore, worldwide concern over the South-East Asian haze issue was raised in the latter half of 1997. At that time the highest three-hour PSI level ever recorded was 226 on 18 September, 1997. This made worldwide news because it caused massive health concerns across the region, but mainly because the total costs of the South-East Asian haze were estimated at US$9 billion as a result of increased health care and disruption of air travel and business activities. It was estimated that the haze layer covered an area of more than 3 million km², affecting large parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand.

This prompted a region-wide response and the formation of the ASEAN Haze Technical Task Force and the implementation of Regional and National Haze Action Plans. As a result all ASEAN’s countries agreed to work together to prepare plans and share resources to improve fire prevention, monitoring and fighting as well as other measures to prevent fires and control their impact as well as improving monitoring systems.

A decade and a half later it is fair to say that many countries are better equipped to monitor the haze and advise people how best to respond, but this is only addressing the symptoms and not the cause.

Forest fire. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

The solution is clear for all to see

The fundamental cause of the haze and one that hasn’t been addressed to date, is the sheer scale of forest destruction worldwide, but particularly in South-East Asia. It’s estimated that 13 million ha of forests are cleared each year, accounting for approximately 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. So, whilst at the local level the smoke and haze can be seen as an annoyance when it might possibly affect an F1 Grand Prix or slightly more serious when it affects public health, at the global scale when it changes the world’s climate, which is likely to have the biggest impact on life on earth, it suddenly becomes a much more important issue.

To find out more about what FFI is doing to engage with this issue, look at our work on Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD).