WHEN the wind changes direction within the next day or two, as predicted by the weatherman, it can be expected to blow away that pall of smoke blanketing parts of the country.
The worst of the current hazy spell will then be over and Malaysians can breathe more easily without the need to cover noses and mouths with masks, handkerchiefs or bare hands. That is, until the next time the smoke from peat fires in this country and from Indonesian hotspots casts its shadow.
The haze has become so much a feature of the Malaysian weather that we seem to take it too much for granted. It is true that we grumble under our breaths about the reduced visibility that strains eyes and nerves, or complain about the acrid air that makes breathing so difficult. At the same time, however, we may just be grateful that this time the smoke was not thick enough to ground aircraft or close down schools. There is no doubt that the scale and duration of the haze this week pales in comparison with the haze that affected most of Southeast Asia for long periods in 1997 and 1998. The regional economy suffered as tourists stayed away in droves, and hospitals and clinics had their hands full treating asthmatics and the elderly. Visibility was so poor that it caused a plane to crash in Sumatra and a supertanker to collide with a cargo ship in the Straits of Malacca.
In a sense, however, the severity of the 1997-98 haze proved a blessing in disguise. It forced the region to begin dealing with an environmental hazard that it had put on the back burner. While the smoke may have got in their eyes, the leading lights of the region could not be accused of not striking while the iron was hot. A Regional Haze Action Plan was quickly hatched to douse the flames and bring them under control. Indeed, regional officials and experts have been burning the midnight oil over the last seven years to develop early warning systems, zero-burning guidelines and other measures to blow out the jungle blazes and to prevent them from being started in the first place. Despite the time, effort and resources expended, the haze remains a chronic problem. While there has been no shortage of possible solutions, implementation has been found wanting. Poor enforcement has been the bane of the firefighting and fire-prevention efforts. This is unfortunate because, however serious the problem may be, things are far from hopeless. Unlike natural disasters, forest fires are man-made and, therefore, preventable. It should not take a tsunami-like crisis far worse than the one of 1997-98 to galvanise the kind of regional co-operative action that would be needed to finally contain this transnational hazard. Since the haze remains a burning issue, there is a need for a return to a sense of urgency in dealing with the problem. Otherwise, it will remain a recurring problem with adverse economic, ecological and health effects.