By Sarah Medeiros
For the citizens of Singapore, 2015 has been a year fraught with political tensions and national grief over the death of a beloved leader. Now they have something else to worry about: The haze. Beginning just before the nationwide elections held on Sept. 11th, smoke from forest fires in Indonesia has blanketed the city-state in an almost constant layer of smog. Officials say there is no clear end in sight.
What is the haze?
The Indonesian island of Sumatra undergoes a period of “slash-and-burn” agriculture roughly every year. This particular agricultural technique involves cutting down trees in an area of a forest and then burning away the rest of the flora. Although this can be an efficient way to clear land if the area is given enough time to recover from the burning, the irresponsible use of this technique has repeatedly resulted in fires that have spread out of control.
The New York Times quoted Bustar Maitar, the global leader of the Indonesia Forest Campaign at Greenpeace, saying that “Singapore is enjoying the ‘deforestation economy’ of Indonesia as a financial center.” His implication is that Singapore holds a certain amount of culpability for the fires’ existence in the first place, which is part of the blame game going on between the region’s governments.
This year, Indonesia has experienced an unusually dry summer, made worse by the effects of El Nińo, leading to the fires catching and spreading farther and faster than normal. Sumatra is not the only victim of the fires in 2015; hotspots have also cropped up on the Indonesian side of Borneo, South and Central Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Papua. According to the Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency, satellite data points to over 1,500 hotspots burning throughout the country as of Oct. 19. The clouds of smoke from the fires have spread across Asia, affecting both Singapore and neighboring Malaysia particularly harshly.
Is the haze dangerous?
Depending on the day, it can be very dangerous, especially to the young, old or sick. Cases of lung and respiratory issues have increased throughout Singapore, and schools have been closed nationwide more than once during the sustained episode. The Singaporean National Environment Agency (NEA) measures the Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) on a scale from 0 – 300+ as shown here:
On the morning of the election in September, the air quality rating in Singapore was 211 PSI – only one category short of hazardous. In the five weeks since the election, the ratings have regularly risen above 300 and rarely dipped under the “moderate” levels of 51 and below. On Oct. 19, the PSI reached a record-hitting level of 471, captured below on Twitter:
What can be done?
Unfortunately, for Singapore it’s mostly a waiting game. Although the Indonesian government accepted assistance, including firefighters and fire-fighting equipment, from Singapore, Malaysia and Australia on Oct. 8, the fires are difficult to put out without rain. Industry officials and analysts estimate that the smoke could last until March 2016.
For the moment, the people of Singapore are doing what they can by sending volunteers to help with the aftermath of the fires, supporting boycotts of certain pulp and paper companies, and voicing their frustration via social media. The #sghaze hashtag is used to both check on the most current PSI rating as well as to share Singaporeans’ experiences with the haze. Accounts such as Hourly Haze Alerts have sprung up, providing both information about and pictures of current air conditions.
Twitter analytics (courtesy of Topsy.com) demonstrate how the hashtag has been in near constant use ever since its initial establishment in September, reaching a high of over 25,000 uses on Sept. 23 alone. The day before the national elections in September, Singaporean citizen peekturegrapher made a joke on Instagram comparing the content of the rally speeches to the haze sweeping over the country. “How do you decide amid the hazy conditions?” the post asked, and although the election’s results are long since clear, the solution to the haze is not.