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2013 Southeast Asian Haze
June 20, 2013 3:11 AM   Subscribe

Forest fires due to slash and burn farming in Sumatra, Indonesia have led to unprecedented air pollution levels in Singapore and Malaysia. In Singapore particularly, Facebook and Twitter are aflame as well. For a country used to very clean air, the sudden pollution has led to public outcry, with air purifiers and face masks being snatched off the shelves. So far, no stop-work-order has been issued, and there are complaints that the government is not tackling the situation rapidly enough. Indonesia is working to put out the fires and is considering cloud seeding; their response to pressure from Singapore to do more was that Singaporeans should stop behaving like children and not disturb their domestic affairs. While image macros about the 2013 haze continue to fill up Facebook feeds, some people are taking the whole affair in a more irreverent way.

Every year, Southeast Asia is beset by the haze, a form of atmospheric pollution that originates from fires in Sumatra, Indonesia started by slash and burn farmers. The 2013 haze has been the worse ever, with the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reaching the hazardous (beyond unhealthy) range in Singapore, Malaysia, and the Riau Islands of Indonesia. Visibility has been heavily reduced, and there has been an increase in emergency hospital visits due to respiratory problems.

The root of the problem lies in the fires in Sumatra, which are generally associated with slash and burn farming techniques that are practiced during the current dry season. Many of the burning plots are associated with oil palm plantations, some possibly owned by large multinational companies, some of which might actually be based in Singapore or Malaysia. So far, Indonesia has refused to identify the owners of the plots where fires have been detected. Several major oil palm companies, including US-held Cargill, deny using burning on their plantations.
posted by destrius (44 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 


Real time air quality map for Asia.

The interesting thing about smoke pollution is that there's no "safe" level. There is a linear relationship between particulate concentrations and deaths.
posted by Jimbob at 3:45 AM on June 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


Just noticed an interesting thing about that map. No stations reporting from Indonesia...
posted by Jimbob at 3:48 AM on June 20, 2013


Fabulous post. Nice and comprehensive.

I'll just add this: you can convert the Singaporean PSI scales to the American AQI scale here. Just make sure you select the right units; best to take PM2.5 readings here for conversion than the PSI readings because the EPA website expects a 24-hour average.

A lot of Singaporeans have been shocked by the new record we hit today, 371 PSI at 1PM. The fact is, it is in fact the average of the past three hours'worth of readings; so the actual PSI at 1PM was much much higher than 371.

No news yet on the Sumatran orang-utans this time. Let's hope they survive.

(I dont mind the thick smoke, but my eyes burn massively, and I can taste burnt wood in my mouth, which makes me feel like puking. A/C's don't help much. )
posted by the cydonian at 4:03 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Satellite image from 2011 showing fires in Sumatra.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:33 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


My simple cough/cold became bronchitis last week and still no effect. Going back to the doctor today. Opening the windows leads to burning eyes and itchy skin.

50 metres away the buildings look like they're in dense fog. And we aren't even downtown or on the West Coast (i.e. closer to Sumatra).

*47 year old visiting in Singapore writes to Metafilter about haze*
posted by infini at 4:55 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


> For a country used to very clean air ...

Not sure about that, I've been to Singapore other years when the Indonesian fires are burning and you don't see blue sky or the sun for days and days.
posted by memebake at 4:59 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, particulate matter is freaking dangerous. London's Great Smog back in 1952 killed at least 4,000 people, and likely more.

I've been reading period interior design books lately, and one from 1979 (published in the US for a US audience) suggests the use of multiple layers of cheesecloth, replaced every few weeks, to cover a baby's window and make the air safer to breathe. And that's just over 30 years ago. I'm the last person who would say we have awesome air quality these days, but it's way better than it was 30 years ago. It is possible to improve these things.

(This was also my biggest issue with the show Terra Nova -- how did they lose all air treatment technology -- baghouses, RTOs, air scrubbers -- in their crapsack future? All the pollution sources they showed were point sources like smokestacks, where it's pretty easy to use emissions control technology. Particulate emissions from forest fires are problematic because you really can't control those emissions the way you can a smokestack.)
posted by pie ninja at 6:04 AM on June 20, 2013


Excellent map, Jimbob. I especially appreciate it as I live in Taiwan.
posted by rmmcclay at 6:06 AM on June 20, 2013


Seven-year-old American on vacation in Singapore writes to Obama about haze

"McDonalds (won't) deliver McDonalds" is the most plaintively kidspeak thing I have ever read.
posted by Etrigan at 6:14 AM on June 20, 2013


Okay, now that I've stepped out of my cubicle and into the streets for my commute home: wow, just wow. This feels like an apocalyptic wasteland here; I think it is just shameful that they aren't even trying to at least scale back outdoor work, some sort of a rotation system or something to minimize the outdoors.

Yeah, I understand that this could go on for weeks, but it is just inhumane to get workers to spend such long hours in manual work. At best, saying you'll "monitor" the situation further the *hour* Singapore was the polluted ever is tone-deaf. Just one more example of how the powers that be just don't care about the underclass that's developing here.
posted by the cydonian at 6:17 AM on June 20, 2013


Many of the burning plots are associated with oil palm plantations, some possibly owned by large multinational companies, some of which might actually be based in Singapore or Malaysia.

And what is that palm oil being used for? Biofuel for Europeans who don't want to use icky, polluting oil in their cars. Nice work protecting the environment! Keep on boycotting that dirty Canadian oil in favour of some clean, sustainable biodiesel.
posted by Dasein at 6:30 AM on June 20, 2013


So... just got back from the clinic. Poor doc's been handing out fancier face masks (not just those light ones used by hygienists etc) - while I felt like Darth Vader, gotta say I could actually breathe on the way home. They've also prescribed an inhaler (I've never been asthmatic nor tended towards chest colds) which they say a lot more folks are requirng.

Anyway that's all bla bla... the point is that the soupy atmosphere, the eerie lights in the night's darkness and folks on the street all wearing masks, scarves, cloths etc makes it look like a dystopian future where Earth has managed to totally fuck up the atmosphere once and for all...
posted by infini at 6:40 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


This really teaches you how helpless you are and that NIMBY doesn't really work, does it?
posted by infini at 6:42 AM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think (hope) air pollution -- as it applies to human health and wellbeing -- is going to be a major issue this century. Perhaps these sorts of incidents will help prompt governments to finally begin regulating emissions for real.

Nice post.
posted by nowhere man at 6:46 AM on June 20, 2013


The ironic aspect that the palm plantations involved might actually be Malaysian and Singaporean owned is being widely reported in Indonesia. This one is from a reasonably respected news source. The headline means: "Fires Occurring on Land of Malaysian-Singaporean Companies."
posted by texorama at 6:55 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


In 2000 I lived in Malaysia and got my taste of what I don't think was even a very bad haze. I basically stayed inside the whole time with the air conditioner blasting, but I still got a lung infection that took 6+ months to really kick. It's really nothing like the type of air pollution you are used to in the West. Or even the chemically air pollution you have in say Bangkok or Athens, which is its own kind of hell. Since it's wood burning the particulars are very large. It's hard to explain, but it's not like anything I've ever experienced and I can't believe 15 years later the situation is unchanged and even worse.
posted by whoaali at 6:59 AM on June 20, 2013


So... just got back from the clinic. Poor doc's been handing out fancier face masks (not just those light ones used by hygienists etc)

N95's. Better protection against the PM 2.5 particulate matter. Lots of places are running out of stock, but the big M down in Syed Alwi Road reputedly still has stocks and will continue to sell them through the night...
posted by the cydonian at 7:24 AM on June 20, 2013


They don't say N95 on them ... some Spanish make. With a springy metal clip near the nose.. is that the same thing?

Anyway, came in here to ask which science fiction story it was where humans got used to breathing in soupy smog and then couldn't deal with fresh air ? Was it Caves of Steel?
posted by infini at 7:35 AM on June 20, 2013


I could see smoke in my office today and spent half the morning coughing and sneezing. It's not even safe indoors.
posted by ianK at 7:41 AM on June 20, 2013


Millennium, infini.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:42 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nice map Jimbob! I've been trying to find some comparative information about the pollution levels here versus other parts of the world.

membake: Not sure about that, I've been to Singapore other years when the Indonesian fires are burning and you don't see blue sky or the sun for days and days.

Indeed, but compared to many other countries in Asia, the air here is usually pretty good. That's one of the problems, actually... its harder for Indonesia to take Singapore's complaints seriously when the pollution levels at which we start to complain are around the same levels that Jakarta experiences most of the time. Of course, the levels now have far exceeded that.

texorama: The ironic aspect that the palm plantations involved might actually be Malaysian and Singaporean owned is being widely reported in Indonesia. This one is from a reasonably respected news source. The headline means: "Fires Occurring on Land of Malaysian-Singaporean Companies."

Yeah... think relations are getting a bit strained and media on both sides might be giving slightly biased reports. The thing is, AFAIK Indonesia hasn't officially mentioned who these companies are. Singapore has already said it will punish any local companies found guilty.
posted by destrius at 8:07 AM on June 20, 2013


Some interesting related commentary:

PAP MP Irene Ng: We should not play the blame game over the haze problem
We in Singapore, profit from the paper/pulp and palm oil industry and to say that all the responsible lies with the Indonesian government does not recognize its transboundary nature and the different pressure points at different steps of the commodity supply chains that can be utilized and which would require different types of interventions. I just would like to reemphasize the fact that if the winds were not blowing the haze towards Singapore, would we at all be concerned at the seemingly endless forest destruction that is taking place so close to our shores?

Perhaps the only way to get people to care more about the environment is to burn down forests in their faces.
posted by destrius at 8:11 AM on June 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think (hope) air pollution -- as it applies to human health and wellbeing -- is going to be a major issue this century

I get your point, but I am very afraid that air pollution (along with water access) are going to be major deadly issues this century and a long time to come. By the time things get bad enough that "something has to be done," we will all be living like this, all the time.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:38 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Perhaps the only way to get people to care more about the environment is to burn down forests in their faces.

Irony is not a domestic chore, apparently.

Liberia, Jan 22 – Liberian farmers who survived a 15-year civil war are now fighting lucrative property deals with Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil companies that threaten the land they live on, if not their sacred burial sites.

Thirty hours by car from the capital Monrovia, the green and yellow flag of Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), an Indonesian palm oil giant, floats over deforested hills in Sinoe County, southern Liberia.

Local farmer Benedict Smarts looked at the scene, and said: “We are not against development – but we want to be heard, we want respect – we want those people to listen to us.”

In 2010, GVL acquired a 63-year lease on 220,000 hectares (544,000 acres) of land to produce palm oil.

It pays annual rent of $1.50 (1.10 euros) per hectare for virgin forest land and $5.00 per hectare for cleared terrain in the lease which is renewable for an additional 30 years.

Palm oil is used for cooking in parts of Africa, Brazil and Southeast Asia, and is an ingredient in soaps and washing powders.

GVL’s lease was signed in Monrovia, without the presence of representatives from those who live in Sinoe County.

In the village of Plu, on the plantation’s outskirts, inhabitants showed letters of complaint sent to the Liberian interior ministry.

“The Indonesians came here for the first time in September 2010,” resident Benedict Manewah explained.

“They said: ‘We have a concession agreement, your president has sold it to us’.

“Three months later they came back … and they started to destroy the properties, farmlands, crops, livestock and houses.”

Manewah listed the crops he had planted. “I had rubber trees, cassavas, breadfruits, orange trees, cocoas, coconuts and palm trees” for his family’s personal consumption.

GVL workers uprooted his crops to produce palm oil exclusively, and “they ship everything to their people, at home” in Indonesia, he said.

Manewah pointed out a tiny parcel of land that contained the graves of relatives. It used to be tucked in the forest but was now surrounded by palm trees.

Development, or ‘modern slavery’?

posted by infini at 8:55 AM on June 20, 2013


The report found at least four cases of workers apparently damaging ancestral cemeteries - including by planting trees on graves - and instances of farms being cleared without prior consent and creeks used for drinking water being polluted. The report added that compensation to victims was often inadequate.

"It is true that the number of seriously affected individuals has not yet been high, however our findings indicate that it could quickly increase as the operation progresses," according to the TFT report.

Golden Veroleum is owned by the U.S.-based Verdant Fund LP, whose sole investor is Singapore-listed palm oil giant Golden Agri-Resources, the world's second-largest palm oil plantation company.

It became Liberia's biggest palm oil investor in 2010 after announcing plans to spend $1.6 billion developing plantations over 220,000 hectares.


...

In 2009 and 2010, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s government awarded more than 1.6 million acres for palm oil production. The land went to the Malaysian corporation Sime Darby and to Golden Veroleum, a subsidiary of the New York-based Verdant Fund L.P. These concessions come at a delicate time, as violent local-level land disputes both between and within villages are still widespread throughout Liberia.
posted by infini at 9:00 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Its a bit like the East India Company all over again, isn't it?
posted by destrius at 9:02 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


and the VOC, given the region.
posted by infini at 9:04 AM on June 20, 2013


Sorry for thread squatting destrius, but *choke, cough, wheeze* I'm taking this personally I guess

Several major oil palm companies, including US-held Cargill, deny using burning on their plantations.

There are huge Del Monte pineapple plantations in Kenya. One day while driving past them with a local inventor who specializes in biogas devices and renewable energy solutions, he made us stop the car and jumped out to take pictures. They were burning the fields after the harvest and the smoke was thick in the air. All the while Dom was jumping up and down going "Aha! gotcha! and they say they don't do this.. Aha!" all the while clicking away. Its was funny then but now its not anymore, is it?
posted by infini at 9:16 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Excuse the self-link, but I just posted a photo a news photo story on this here.

Thanks @destrius for calling it to my attention.
posted by kokogiak at 10:13 AM on June 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


kokogiak: That's awesome! I was actually trying to find some image gallery with good high-res photos of the haze while constructing this post.
posted by destrius at 10:21 AM on June 20, 2013


The moon is a funny colour right now.
posted by infini at 11:02 AM on June 20, 2013


I really hope we make the transition away from economies based on growth. The earth needs less humans.
posted by tripping daisy at 12:26 PM on June 20, 2013


Aah. I saw this thread right after I posted an AskMe about infant respirator masks (apparently they don't make N95 masks for babies?). It's not a good time to be a newborn in Singapore.

On another note: this is a nice Facebook group. People offering to share air-conditioned living spaces with those who don't have that.
posted by aielen at 12:30 PM on June 20, 2013


I saw this thread right after I posted an AskMe about infant respirator masks (apparently they don't make N95 masks for babies?).

Jesus Christ, this is like an AskMe from our post-apocalyptic future.
posted by Dasein at 1:09 PM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


economies based on growth. The earth needs less humans.

I tend to think of economies based on growth as consuming scarce resources wastefully in order to drive ever increasing debt fuelled consumption. How does a sustainable lifestyle make the leap to less babies logically? A triple bottom line approach coupled with some recycling in product design and manufacturing and a shift to renewable energy right now would make a larger difference than stinking corpses contaminating groundwater, no?
posted by infini at 1:27 PM on June 20, 2013


And what is that palm oil being used for? Biofuel for Europeans who don't want to use icky, polluting oil in their cars. Nice work protecting the environment! Keep on boycotting that dirty Canadian oil in favour of some clean, sustainable biodiesel.

Not true:

2011 Malaysia & Indonesia production: 35 million tons (87% global total)
2010/2011: Total palm oil use for energy worldwide: 2.5 million tons source [PDF]

Now granted, across the EU in 2011 50% of rapeseed production goes to (subsidised) biofuel production, and palm oil for food use is imported to make up for a lot of it. But even so since total EU import is only 12% of global production, a maximum of 7.9 million tons is used for biofuel worldwide. Indian, Chinese, Malaysian and Indonesia food use accounts for about 45% of the total usage worldwide. source [PDF]
posted by cromagnon at 1:54 PM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


And what is that palm oil being used for? Biofuel for Europeans who don't want to use icky, polluting oil in their cars. Nice work protecting the environment! Keep on boycotting that dirty Canadian oil in favour of some clean, sustainable biodiesel..

More like it's being used in those cheap shit hydrogenated- oil crackers in your kitchen.
posted by Liquidwolf at 7:32 PM on June 20, 2013


Yeah I believe* palm oil is mainly used for food. Its a very common cooking oil used by food outlets here, because its cheap.

* i.e. I totally speculate and am too lazy to do any actual research.
posted by destrius at 7:40 PM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The hits, they keep on coming! 367 PSI this hour. The four highest 3-hour PSI readings in Singapore's history have all come in the last 48 hours.
posted by the cydonian at 7:41 PM on June 20, 2013




Satellite photos from NASA's Earth Observatory

Its 401 now... the scale stops at 500, wonder if they'll have to add another level if this keeps up
posted by destrius at 9:18 PM on June 20, 2013


Why Indonesia cannot stop the fires and haze
Op-ed by: Botanist and researcher Francis Ng is the former deputy director-general of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia. He is now the botanical consultant to Bandar Utama City Centre Sdn Bhd and the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre
posted by BinGregory at 9:26 PM on June 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Comments from the heartland.

Some professional opinion on particulate matter. To note:
“But for people who work outside, such as delivery drivers, it is hazardous, as they work outside all day long. Their number of working hours should be limited and they must be made to wear N95 masks,”
There's finally some health advisory from the government on this.

The short summary: buy your own masks, or get your employer to buy your mask. Don't worry, the government will pay $30 out of your visit to your neighbourhood clinic if conditions apply.

If you're a manual worker working in the docks or the town-councils or somewhere, let's hope your employer is kind enough to give you masks! Because we certainly aren't going to do anything, even if you fall sick.
posted by the cydonian at 2:25 AM on June 21, 2013


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