Archive for June, 2013

THE¬†heading is taken from a love song by the Hollies and it became a global hit in 1974. The main line of the lyrics is “all I need is the air that I breathe and to love you ‚Ķ” It would have been hard for any band to sing this song in an open air concert in the region covered by haze. They may need the love but not the polluted air.

Yes, the choking haze is upon us again and those affected are screaming out with anguish, especially in countries that are most “innocently” affected, especially Singapore and Malaysia.

The main source of the haze is from open burning in Indonesia. As of June, Indonesia is the only country in Asean that has not ratified the anti-haze treaty. There have been allegations that the wind seldom blows the haze from the fires in Sumatra towards Jakarta so they do not see the urgency of the situation. Many are therefore, hoping for the winds to change direction to compel Jakarta to ratify the treaty and act decisively against open burning.

The Indonesian government blames Malaysian plantation companies for starting the fire. Purely from a business standpoint, it is much cheaper to use a matchstick to clear the forests than to adopt the zero burning method but the Indonesian authorities must produce evidence to support their allegations.

Some of the Malaysian companies implicated have refuted these allegations (with lines similar to the 1989 Billy Joel’s song We Didn’t Start the Fire). If the companies are the culprits and the Indonesian authorities have proof, by all means charge them.

Transboundary pollution, especially involving air and water, is often sensitive, complicated and hard to enforce without the full support and co-operation of all the countries involved.

Amid the finger pointing, Indonesia should, at least, demonstrate its sincerity in wanting to address the problem by ratifying the treaty. This would be the first step in the right direction. As the “big brother” of Asean, Indonesia needs to show “leadership by example” to help its neighbours, who are now suffering again from actions taking place within its borders.

In the meantime and pending a diplomatic resolution, the affected countries are helpless, except to mitigate the effects by a public alert, issuance of masks, cloud seeding and if necessary, declaring a state of emergency.

Of all environmental threats, the most dangerous or life threatening is toxic pollution of the local air quality. We cannot stop breathing, even for a few minutes. We can choose not to drink polluted water or not to eat polluted food but we cannot stop breathing.

In more extreme cases, many people can die from inhaling toxic air. One well known case is the 1984 Bhopal Tragedy in India, in which an accident took place at a pesticide plant of a multinational corporation.

More than 2,200 people died immediately after the gas leak and there were more than 8,000 deaths within two weeks. Another 8,000 people have died from gas-related diseases since. A government report in 2006 stated that this poisonous gas leak caused 558,125 injuries. This is just one incident in one locality.

The other type of air pollution, while non-toxic locally but is very serious in the longer term on the health of the planet, is global warming or climate change. It is caused by the build-up of greenhouse gases, especially the “harmless and inert” carbon dioxide, which is creating all sorts of problems globally, regionally and locally.

A recent scientific report suggested that the level of carbon dioxide had just passed a dangerous threshold level of no return and our planet Earth is on course for more destructive storms, floods, erratic and extreme weather and deadly diseases.

Carbon dioxide is the main by-product of the burning of fossil fuels and the only long-term solution appears to be developing viable sources of renewable energy.
The severe storms in Penang and elsewhere, unexpected floods and the very hot weather here (while in the North, it can be extremely cold and hot) may be warning signs of this impending environmental catastrophe.

If you have seen the 2004 Hollywood movie, The Day After Tomorrow, you might be alarmed and think that its portrayal of environmental doom and gloom might be too extreme. Perhaps so, but we are already seeing some signs of extreme weather patterns all over the world.

Weather is becoming so unpredictable and this itself is one of the messy problems with climate change. Many meteorologists are also at a loss in forecasting weather changes and patterns. Weather forecast has always been complicated but it’s far worse now.

Environmental degradation can best be summed up as the pollution of the land (waste disposal and soil destruction), water (lakes, rivers, seas and oceans) and air (local air quality, ozone depletion and global warming) but it also includes unsustainable resource depletion of fisheries, live-stock, topsoil, energy resources and forests and the destruction of biodiversity.

The three main factors or causes of environmental degradation are “unsustainable business practices” (including energy sourcing and usage), “wasteful and polluting consumption lifestyles” and “poverty and overpopulation”. For example, the haze is caused by unsustainable practices of plantation companies.

Poverty and overpopulation put pressure on clearing land cheaply for agriculture.

The above causes are humongous problems for humanity. To address them would require much public education, strong political will of governments, huge funding, new taxation policies and a change of consumption lifestyle. It will also take much time, resource allocation and planning and change management of large corporations. But time is not on the side of humanity as the rate of environmental destruction is still faster than the rate of Mother Nature’s healing and recovery.

Protecting the environment effectively needs a collective regional and global approach and countries need to look beyond their walls and with a new co-operative mindset as environmental issues often transcend borders.

Most governments, business leaders, scientists, NGOs and UN agencies concerned are aware of the state of our environment and the remedies needed but they must collectively work faster and more effectively to reverse the destruction of our environment.

Otherwise, we can expect more extreme storms and weather and the continuation of the haze problem. And the film The Day After Tomorrow may become a reality in substance, not necessarily ending humanity as depicted but nevertheless still destroying life on this planet as we know it.

The writer is the former CEO of a GLC in the early nineties and was an adviser to the government for the Rio Earth Summit of June 1992, the first UN global summit on environment. Comments: