IT IS high time for the Malaysian Government to get serious about the haze, and not because of its impact on the tourism industry. The health of Malaysians and the economy are at stake.
Who would want to put money or come and do research in our Multimedia Super Corridor or our Agro Valley if they have to live in conditions that millions of Malaysians have been subjected to in recent days?
Looking at the weather map, it would appear that a greater part of central Peninsular Malaysia – from Ipoh in the north to Seremban in the south, from Port Klang in the west to Kuantan in the east – is covered with haze.
The haze has been with us for more than a week, and it seems to be getting worse. In Kuala Lumpur, you can smell the acrid quality of the air that is burnt, bitter and most unpleasant. The pungent smell has even pervaded air-conditioned offices and homes.
Driving along the road, one is surrounded by a massive shroud of smoky haze. Many friends I spoke to say they feel depressed and trapped.
Depressed because they sorely miss the blue skies and greenery that make Kuala Lumpur such a lovely, liveable tropical city; trapped because there is no escaping the haze. Rich or poor, everyone is suffering.
From reports by the authorities, it would appear that the haze could be traced to those so-called “hot spots” in Sumatra and a number of peat fires in the KLIA/Cyberjaya area.
Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar was quick to apologise to Malaysia for the haze. “We are very concerned about the worsening situation caused by open burning in Sumatra,” he was quoted in an interview in The Star.
But what is Indonesia doing about it?
The haze has been a regular phenomenon in Sumatra and Kalimantan for the past decade or so because forests are being cut and burnt by plantation companies to make way for oil palm estates or by illegal loggers.
Indonesia is quick to point out that it has tough laws – including the death penalty – against illegal logging and open burning. True, but we all know that enforcement is woefully inadequate.
It is time for Asean governments to tell Jakarta that it must take responsibility for the huge economic and social costs that it has inflicted on its neighbours because of the haze.
Jakarta must recognise that while open burning is probably the cheapest way to clear the jungle and plant oil palm and rubber, this is creating an environmental disaster to itself and its neighbours.
In these days of globalisation, what is being done in one country has far-reaching and unintended effects on other countries and such harmful effects must be factored into the overall cost of development. Saying sorry is not good enough.
It is clear that Indonesia, on its own, is unable to tackle the problem of open burning and illegal logging because it lacks the resources to do so.
It should consult with its neighbours and world agencies to find a long-term solution to this perennial environmental problem.
The Malaysian Government, on its part, can do more to tackle the peat fires, because that too is a perennial problem, as well as be tough on open burning. Finding solutions to the haze must now be a government priority.
Not long ago, the Government and particularly the tourism industry were worried about the impact of the haze (and the attendant publicity) on tourist arrivals. This is a short-sighted policy.
Sure, tourist earnings are important and no group, particularly the media, would want to do anything to hurt this important industry.
But as the haze shows no signs of going away, Malaysians want solutions. Many are in a foul mood, and I do not mean that as a pun.