Malaysia, region better prepared to face El Nino, haze

The world is seeing the impact of El Nino. According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), there is an 80 per cent chance of El Nino happening between July and September.

With El Nino, the WMO expects the see a sudden increase in global warming. Parts of the world will experience warmer temperatures with less rain, while others will see more rain than usual.

According to the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC), El Nino will also likely cause environmental changes that increase the likelihood of peatland and vegetation fires. El Nino will allow them to spread faster and last longer.

This will lead to a higher chance of haze. It has been estimated that 90 per cent of the haze problem in the region in the past years came from peatland and vegetation-related fires.

Based on the Asean Secretariat's records, the worst transboundary haze in the region in 1997 and 1998 had caused an estimated loss of US$9 billion.

There has been stronger political will in Asean member states to act together to prevent a recurrence of the 1997-1998 haze, especially after the signing of the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in June 2002.

Malaysia, consistent with the regional forecast, is expected to experience drier and warmer weather until September. The Malaysian Meteorological Department has predicted that this year's weather will be more intense.

With the drier and warmer climate, there is concern about vegetation and peatland fires becoming more frequent and increasing the possibility of haze. Transboundary haze is a serious threat to the well-being of the nation.

The government declared a state of emergency thrice — 1997, 2005 and 2013 — due to the haze problem. It is estimated that the 1997-1998 haze, the worst in our country's history, caused RM800 million in losses.

The situation in Malaysia is manageable. Our air quality index remains satisfactory and no major case of open burning, peatland and bush fires has been detected.

In most cases, local haze problems are a result of open burning and peatland fires caused by human activities and carelessness, with minimal connection to El Nino.

Despite the good indicators, the government has been proactive. On May 16, the Central Disaster Management Committee instructed all agencies to make preparations should El Nino worsen.

The Department of Environment activated its procedures for peatland fire prevention, a national open burning action plan, a national haze action plan and stricter enforcement of the Environmental Quality Act.

The National Committee on Haze and Dry Weather was also activated, involving 70 agencies at the federal and state levels.

The Fire and Rescue Department has identified 20 peatland fire hotspots. The Department of Environment, Fire and Rescue Department, Civil Defence Force and local governments have increased the frequency of patrols and drone surveillance at the hotspots.

To ensure better surveillance, satellites have been used to detect hotspots. Our main strategy is to prevent vegetation and peatland fires.

To achieve this, 305 check dams, 101 tube wells, 15 ponds, six watch- towers, 3.3km of pipelines and 82 piezometers have been constructed by the Mineral and Geoscience Department, Drainage and Irrigation Department and Forestry Department to monitor and minimise the risk of peatland and forest fires spreading out of control.

The government has also made preparations for firefighting operations. Various agencies' assets that can be mobilised to fight peatland and forest fires have been identified.

Bombardier aircraft, high-capacity pumps and backhoes from maritime enforcement agencies, the Public Works Department and Drainage and Irrigation Department are ready to be mobilised.

The Fire and Rescue Department has placed 27,052 personnel on call to fight peatland and forest fires.

Efforts have also been made to educate the public on the importance of reducing peatland fires and open burning, especially during the dry season, through all media platforms. Community involvement is crucial to reduce open burning, especially in agricultural areas.

Looking at the preparations at the regional and national levels, Malaysia and Asean member states are better prepared to face the threat of haze this time compared with previous years.

The writer is director-general of the National Disaster Management Agency

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