Best intentions have not been good enough to smother the haze
ACCORDING to the Department of Environment, on Tuesday, Tanjung Malim in Perak was the only area in the country that reached an unhealthy level of air quality, with a reading of 102 on the Air Pollutant Index (API). On Monday, it was Banting in Selangor that came close to that unwanted level with an API of 90. On Sunday, unhealthy levels were recorded at Port Klang, Alor Setar and Kangar. Though the places with the highest API readings keep changing from day to day, this can't conceal the fact that the smoke from the fires burning on the Indonesian island of Sumatera shows no signs of disappearing. This is underscored by the fact that almost twice the number of hotspots in Sumatera were detected by the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre -- 310 on Monday compared with 163 on Sunday. In fact, with the Malaysian Meteorological Department expecting the start of the El Nino phenomenon to prolong the hot and dry spell in the region until October, the kind of conditions that are ideal for slash-and-burn clearing of the land, chances are that the haze, which has been smothering Malaysian skies since June, will continue to be a problem.
To be sure, Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Douglas Uggah Embas has said he would make a strong appeal to Indonesia to reduce the number of hotspots at the meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze Pollution next month. Certainly, the May meeting of the steering committee noted that Indonesia had made progress in cutting down the areas with potential for uncontrolled fires. As a Malaysian project has shown, a well-managed fire prevention programme can lower the number of hot spots by more than 70 per cent. In 1997, Asean members also developed a Regional Haze Action Plan to monitor, mitigate and prevent forest fires. This was followed by the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002.
However, while all this is commendable, and there has been no lack of effort by Asean to tackle this environmental problem and no doubting the determination on the part of Indonesia in recent years to take positive steps to deal with the haze, what is clear that every year for the past fifteen years, the smoke has been arriving without fail. So, with the southwest monsoon blowing hot and dry this season, don't expect much improvement in air quality and visibility. All we can hope, as we have in the past, is that rain-laden clouds will come and put out the flames.