Haze, climate change and people
Purple haze all in my eyes, Don’t know if it’s day or night, You got me blowin’, blowin’ my mind, Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?
Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ could be Southeast Asia’s official theme song during this trans-boundary haze period although sadly, our haze is not purple.
Tapping on their humourous sides, Malaysian trollers managed to have a field day during this hazy season.
The Haze Runner, a photoshopped poster of Wes Ball’s ‘The Maze Runner’ was circulated online depicting its cast wearing face masks with Malaysia’s iconic Petronas twin towers in the background.
On the serious side; the impact of the haze was obvious as schools were closed, flights were cancelled or delayed and smaller vessels without navigation systems were not allowed to go out to sea.
Yet since this particular haze episode started last August, nobody questioned how this smog would change Malaysia’s climate systems in the long run.
For starters both haze and climate change shares one of many root problems – the burning of peat swamp forest.
Monash University associate professor Catherine Yule explained that the burning of the Indo-Malaysian peat swamp forests cause the haze because they are the most carbon-rich freshwater ecosystems in the world, storing carbon in peat up to 25m deep and vegetation up to 70m tall.
“Malaysia and Indonesia have more than 93 per cent of the world’s tropical peat carbon stores and their rapid destruction for timber and agriculture has resulted in atmospheric carbon dioxide releases more than ten per cent of worldwide fossil fuel emissions,” she said in an email interview.
Yule has been studying the ecology of tropical peat swamp forests in Malaysia since 2001.
She explained agricultural conversion, mostly to oil palm, commences with drainage which releases black-coloured water called fluvial carbon and aerates peat thus accelerating microbial decomposition and carbon dioxide emissions.
“This is followed by logging and burning which release sequestered carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases as well as toxic particulates.
“The haze itself impedes photosynthesis by plants so this prevents carbon sequestration by plants, further contributing to climate change.”
Meanwhile, coral reefs, known as the rainforests of the seas, are already feeling the pinch of climate change.
Nadhirah Mohd. Rifai witnessed it first hand as an assistant program manager of Reef Check Malaysia (RCM), a non-profit organisation that engages with the local community as well as protects, restores and revives coral reefs in Malaysia.
“Climate change is relevant in my job as it causes the rise of sea temperature and subsequently results in coral bleaching,” she shared.
RCM reported that over the last decade 15 per cent of the world’s reefs have been lost while a further 30 per cent of reefs are severely threatened.
In RCM 2013 annual reef survey report, Malaysian reefs are considered to be in “fair” condition with an average live coral cover at 48.33 per cent according to widely accepted Coral Reef Health Criteria.
But coral bleaching which is linked to the rise of sea temperature continues to be one of the key threats to coral reefs.
While researchers, scholars and environmentalists are aware on issues of climate change, people on the ground are still in the dark on what we have on our hands.
While people around him hardly mention anything about climate change, Jessie Aileen said the effects of the haze have become a commonplace topic among all the families in the community.
Besides the peat swamp forests, slash-and-burn agriculture is also widely practiced in other places including Jessie’s area in the Kuching and Serian divisions.
“I am a Bidayuh. My family is a mix of two different Bidayuh sub ethnic groups; Biperuh from Penrissen and Bisadong from Serian,” he said, explaining that while the Biperuh grow paddy on the hillsides and the Bisadong grow paddy in the fields, both kinds of paddy use open burning to clear up the lands after harvest season.
“Post harvest haze is considered a normal sight and we expect the haze to occur every year.”
He remembered how when he was younger his mother would forbid him and his younger siblings from playing outside the house when there was haze.
“We can feel the air start to feel unusually hot and less humid. We saw the mist thicken and thicken everyday and there being less sunlight but it felt very hot and uncomfortable. However, after a few weeks, the haze would start to disappear, just like that.”
As such, Jessie said haze had become the norm and they grew to accept it as part of the year’s cycle but they never thought its impact went as far as climate change.
“But now, haze worried us with the students getting sent home for days, even up to a week and I do think my community is aware of the effects of haze that gets worse every year,” the undergraduate student said.
Last month, indigenous peoples from 12 countries in Asia held a regional preparatory meeting for the 21st session of the UN Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Conference of Parties (COP21) in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
They declared that while rural indigenous communities such as Jessie’s people in Penrissen and Serian contributed the least to climate change, they will suffer the burden of its after effects.
Ultimately, haze has blanketed the country almost annually since the late 1980s but this year the topic has blown up all over the news and social media, with the impacts becoming more tangible such as closed down schools and airport runaways.
Sadly, perhaps just like the haze, until people understand the abstract concept of climate change and understand that their daily lives are being interrupted by it, the level of awareness on climate change would still vary or even worse, be limited only to scientists and environmentalists.