Malaysia: Haze -- It’s still here

HARIATI AZIZAN The Star 4 Sep 16;

THE heavy downpours in the last few days seem to have washed away the haze, but that does not guarantee blue skies ahead. As experts advise, we still need to keep that face mask on hand.

“We know that the El Nino has subsided and so with the generally wetter weather, any haze this year would not be as persistent, severe or extensive as last year’s,” says Assoc Prof Koh Tieh-Yong.

“But the period from June to September is the usual dry season of the annual monsoon cycle in Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra. So when forest fires start this season, there will still be smoke haze produced and the wind systems on some days will carry it across the Malacca Straits,” the weather and climate scientist from Singapore’s SIM University tells Sunday Star in an e-mail interview.

The hazy shroud that returned to our skies early last week certainly triggered bad memories of the choking smog last year when schools had to be closed and flights cancelled, among other disruptions, due to the low air quality and poor visibility. With the intense heat caused by the El Nino phenomenon, the seasonal agricultural fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan – widely recognised as the main cause of the region’s transboundary haze – had peaked in September and October 2015, before fizzling out by the end of November.

This year, the Singapore-based Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) forecasts La Niña conditions in the coming months, which will see above normal rainfall for most parts of the region, especially in the Indonesian archipelago.

As Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar assured earlier, this will make the haze more moderate.

La Nina conditions can definitely help ease the haze, says Universiti Malaya (UM) meteorological expert Dr Sheeba Chenoli.

“For large-scale haze, rain or favourable prevailing winds are the only means to clear or lighten it. At present, we are slowly moving into La Nina conditions and if they prevail, they will favour more north-east monsoon rain that will ease the haze.”

The burning question remains, however: Can the haze be prevented?

Dr Sheeba notes that while 1997 recorded the worst smog in the region, the occurrence of the haze has been an annual affair since 1982.

“Light haze persists throughout the year but the intensity increases during the dry period, aggravated by open burning either by individuals or large-scale plantation clearance activities.

“Locally, the effect can be minimised through self-restraint or enforcement. However, if it is advected from neighbouring countries, there is not much we can do,” she says.

Dr Sheeba points out that even though the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was adopted in 2002 to mitigate haze pollution through concerted national efforts and international cooperation, the treaty has not been effective enough to mitigate impacts due to the recurrence of haze between 2004 and 2010, and in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

We are also not helped by our climate, she adds.

“In Malaysia, the climate is characterised by two monsoon seasons, the south-west monsoon and the north-east monsoon with the two inter-monsoonal periods in between. The south-west monsoon period in Malaysia is generally drier and warmer whereas the north-east monsoon is characterised by frequent spells of heavy rain.

“During the south-west monsoon, there is a possibility of hotspot activities due to peat and forest fires, particularly in the fire-prone areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan. The prevailing winds during the south-west monsoon blow mainly from the south-east or south-west. These winds tend to advect haze particles from Sumatra and Kalimantan towards peninsular Malaysia, causing widespread and dense haze that can last for weeks.”

Dr Erik Velasco, a research scientist from the Singapore-MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Alliance for Research and Technology, stresses in an e-mail interview that there is nothing natural about the fires that are causing the annual haze.

“The haze is triggered mainly by massive fires on oil palm and pulpwood plantations on the neighbouring islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan.

“These fires are not natural. Burning has been used for centuries for land-clearing purposes. Until four decades ago, their impact was not so severe given their small scale. In recent years, the number and extent of the fires have drastically increased.”

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that many of these man-made fires burn in already-deforested peatlands, adds Dr Velasco.

“Peats are rich in organic material underground and therefore are prone to maintain fires smouldering for long periods of time.”

He stresses that preventing the fires requires an enormous effort on a regional scale.

“Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore need to work together to reduce their occurrence as much as possible. A strong political commitment is needed to find solutions. We cannot blame the local farmers. They need to make a living. The solution relies on finding alternative economic activities for them – investments in sustainable agro-industry will help, for instance,” he says.

Another measure is to take a tight control of the corporations controlling the plantations.

“It is mandatory. Similar to the drugs problem, the authorities should look at who is getting the economic benefits,” says Dr Velasco.

Universiti Malaya Sabah’s environ­mental science expert Dr Justin Sentian agrees that existing regional cooperation and agreements among Asean governments on the haze problem need to be reviewed and strengthened.

“The haze is a seasonal environmental issue in Malaysia with both local and regional sources,” he says in an e-mail interview.

“Preventing the haze is a difficult task but we can minimise it through strict surveillance and control by the respective government and authorities.

“For one, existing strategies adopted by the Environment Department to minimise additional contributions from local sources (such as industries, quarries) to the effects of the haze need to be strengthened,” Dr Sentian says.

For UM’s Centre for Climate Affairs director Prof Dr Khairulmaini Osman Salleh, the main challenge lies in the implementation and enforcement of the strategies and policies.

“Mitigation efforts are already in place at the regional (Asean) and national (Asean states) levels. The main challenge is translating these policies on the ground, such as addressing legal issues at the regional level.”

Prof Dr Khairulmaini ultimately believes that the haze not only cannot be prevented but its adverse impact on our quality of life will not subside any time in the future unless the region and its people adopt more sustainable lifestyles.

The use of non-clean energy, rapid urbanisation and natural fires in peat swamps amidst a regional and global population that is exponentially increasing will not only continue to increase the hazard threat but could also cause a potential regional-scale disaster, he says.

More research needed to mitigate impact of haze
The Star 4 Sep 16;

IT may look clear outside, with no smoky smell, but that does not necessarily mean that the air does not contain harmful pollutants, warns Dr Erik Velasco, research scientist from the Singapore-MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Alliance for Research and Technology, underlining the importance of an accurate reading of the haze.
As he had told The Straits Times, “Don’t just trust your eyes and nose because they are not what detect harmful substances in the air.”

Dr Velasco was one of the experts who pushed for the country’s National Environmental Agency (NEA) to provide hourly reports from its haze monitoring system to enable people to manage the short-term harm of haze exposure to their health.

“Full transparency in the dissemination of air pollution information to the public is necessary. Environmental authorities have to communicate air quality information quickly and efficiently. In addition to the 24-h Pollutant Standard Index (PSI), they need to report the 1-h PSI, as well as the hourly concentrations of all monitored pollutants,” he says in an e-mail interview.

It was reported recently that Malaysians will also soon be able to see real time readings of the haze rather than the current 24-hour average Air Pollutant Index (API).

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar was quoted as saying that he would bring up the proposal at the next Cabinet session on Wednesday, and if approved, it will be implemented the next day.

Many Malaysians are hoping that the Government will also adopt the PM2.5 measure­ment that Singapore uses; this is a reading of six pollutants that includes the measurement of fine particles sized less than 2.5 microns. This will provide a more accurate measurement of the haze index instead of the current PM10 which only measures pollutant particles measuring smaller than 10 microns.

Wan Junaidi has said that the PM2.5 measure­ment can only be introduced in mid-2017 because his ministry needs to upgrade the entire system simultaneously.

The lack of a comprehensive air quality monitoring network covering the entire Straits of Malacca is a problem, says Dr Velasco.

“It must be a priority. The three countries – Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia – should work together to implement such a monitoring network.

“In Singapore, I always recommend to follow the 1-h concentration of fine particles, or PM2.5. Among the monitored pollutants, PM2.5 is the most representative pollutant for the haze plumes,” he reiterates, adding that robust methodologies to detect fires and forecast the dispersion of the haze are also needed.

Dr Velasco believes it is also the authorities’ responsibility to provide mitigation measures based on scientific information.

“Important investments are needed to improve knowledge about the origin and phy­sical and chemical processes of the haze, as well as on its impact on public health and ecosystems,” he says.

Universiti Malaya Sabah’s environmental science expert Dr Justin Sentian proposes that Malaysia adopts the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) to report on the health risk posed by a specific level of air quality during a hazy period.

“The AQHI reports on the health risk posed by a mixture of pollutants: ground level ozone, particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. The existing API communicates the air quality of the single worst pollutant, while the index rating for the AQHI is the sum of the health risks from each of the pollutants in the index. It reflects the current knowledge of the health effects associated with air pollution,” he says.

Dr Sentian also stresses the importance of clear action plans – based on scientific information and reliable air pollution data – to protect as best as possible the people’s health during haze.

“The Government and authorities need to state clearly actions such as closing schools and banning outdoor activities when pollution reaches certain concentrations. The general public, meanwhile, should adhere to the ad­visory and guidelines issued by the Government to minimise the effects of the haze on their health,” he says.

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