Where there's Smoke

It rained today. An event that has acquired new meaning since we were shrouded with haze billowing in from the neighbouring Indonesian islands.  The dry weather that brought the haze finally gave way, thunder rumbled for hours as we waited with bated breath literally until the rain came and washed a week's suffering away. What was joyful relief  has now instilled a new found sense of gratitude every time it rains.

That week, the days began with an anxious checking of the air pollutant index to see with growing wariness the numbers escalate to unhealthy and then hazardous levels. The authorities warned everyone to stay at home with the air conditioning on and not go outside. I don't have air conditioning. I live in an older house in a less urbanised neighbourhood that's better ventilated and suited to living with just fans. The pictures above show a landscape with almost a dreamlike quality wrapped in mist except it wasn't mist it was acrid particulate smoke that you could smell and irritated your eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

New to this phenomenon, I navigated a sizeable learning curve trying to understand the problem I was dealing with and what I should do. The first discovery is that there are quite a few measurements for pollutants out there and both Malaysia's API and Singapore's PSI don't include PM2.5 which is the finer particulate that gets into your lungs and stays there. On learning this I became more vigilant about closing windows and doors. A few days later, the numbers started to go down aided by the intervention of cloud seeding and waterbombing and finally, it rained.

A casual mention on my facebook timeline alerted me to the effects of haze in the garden. A friend noted that leaves were turning yellow. Another friend echoed the same and I ran outside to see its effect on mine. Indeed, here and there I could see it too. The haze wasn't just choking us, it was doing the same to other living beings too. And not just flora, there was all the wildlife that can't stay inside in the air conditioning or put a mask on.

As the fires raged in indonesia, so did public opinion about who was to blame and whether adequate measures were being taken. Indonesian leaders deflected blame to the unscrupulous land clearing practises of Malaysian and Singaporean Palm oil companies situated in Indonesia. Singaporeans complained about the government's continued use of the PSI, accusing them of hiding the truth. In Malaysia there was such poorly disseminated information, that even a well intentioned Cabinet minister comically gave out 40,000 face masks that had no ability to protect the wearer from harmful effects.

Amidst  the din of all this, little analysis has been given to the real arsonist here, the spiralling demand for Palm oil based products. Demand for palm oil has doubled in the last thirteen years and is predicted to more than double again by 2030 and to triple by 2050 to keep up with the spiralling demand for more chocolates, cookies, cosmetics, air fresheners to name a few. This is the fire, that really needs to be put out.

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