“Uncloaking the Haze”: An eye-opening discussion

By Terry Xu

The haze in June 2013 had Singaporeans running around for information on the latest development on the haze situation in Indonesia and where NEA website had its largest views ever since just by people refreshing their screens on latest PSI readings.

Tan Yi Han speaking on his experience to the peat swamp in Selangor, Malaysia

37 year old Tan Yi Han conducted a seminar on Monday evening to share his experience in Malaysia and Indonesia in the search to find out the real cause of the haze and what can we do about it. Together with him was two other experts, Dr Liew Soo Chin, Head of Research for Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing (CRISP) at National Technological University and  DDr Jackson Ewing, Research Fellow and Coordinator of S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

He described his journey on how he travelled to Malaysia to view the peat swamps and learn about how fires can be started in supposedly waterlogged areas.

He discovered that the canals dug in by companies along plots of land to drain water from the swamp making the land suitable for agricultural usage. This drainage of water from the land dries the top layer of soil which is essentially peat. In Indonesia, the layer of peat is typically 5m – 20m deep, rich in carbon and a precursor to the formation of coal. This  layer of peat soil is flammable especially when dried, and is ignited when there are vegetation fires on the surface of the soil. The flameless smoke which people see on photos is a result of the smoldering of the peat underneath the ground.

Presenting two cases studies which he came face to face at Indonesia, he showed how the Indonesians themselves were being affected for weeks by the fires and haze even much so than how Singaporeans had to endure for just mere days.

One family had to stay behind during the fires at the plantations to safeguard their property despite of the health and life threatening aerosol. The fire at the plantation had been started by fires from neighbouring plots of land and with no water to extinguish the fire with, the family literally lost all their crops and source of income except for the roof over their head. They were left with no money to buy food and upon seeing the plight of the family, the volunteer group which Mr Tan was with,  gave a week of food supplies to the family to tide them over.

Another plot of land where the fire occurred at was a different story by its own.

Land clearing by fire at this region is strictly prohibited and landowners will have to pay for any crops destroyed by such land clearing methods. People at this region generally clear their land by the use of herbicides or by parangs. But at this plot of land which was cleared by herbicides, created another kind of issue. The weeds that are killed by the herbicides are made bone dry due to the dry weather which makes the dead weeds highly flammable.

The fire that occurred during the time of visit by the volunteer group, was said to be caused by discarded cigarette butt thrown from the nearby road.  A simple test showed that the dried up weeds blackens and starts to smolder just within seconds of contact with a smoldering cigarette butt.

fire out of control

Summing up the circumstances of how the fire are being started, it seems that the root cause of the haze issue is the excessive draining of the peat swamp via the canals dug around the area which allows the peat layer to be ignited by the vegetation fire on the surface.

Asking how this can be resolved even if we know that canals are the reason for the excessive burning of peat soil. What can be done with the canals given that they are the main reason why farmers can continue to farm on the land.

Mr Tan states that the canals can be blocked so that the water does not drain lower than a certain level.  “The purpose of canal blocking is to raise the water level in the canals. The water level only needs to be 80 cm below the ground surface for the plant roots to grow, but without canal-block, it is common to see the water level dropping more than 2 m below the ground surface. This makes the peat soil surface very dry and the vegetation above very dry as well, so that once a fire starts, it can easily spread and burn deep underground. On the other hand, raising the water level will make the soil more moist and less susceptible to burning.”

Dr Liew screened satellite photos that document the fires that Indonesia has seen throughout the years and showed the correlation between the dry season/drought and the fires that go out of control.  Based on the number of hotspots identified by the satellite imagery, the fires which occurred in Sumatra/Indonesia this year were actually not particularly worse than previous years, and this year is not an El Nino year as well.

But this year, typhoon activity near Taiwan and the Philippines had sucked moisture from the Indonesian region, resulting in a particularly dry month in June which resulted in more fires. This same weather pattern simultaneously created strong wind directed from Sumatra to Singapore.  The combination of the two led to the particularly serious haze for Singapore this year.

In his presentation of economical and social drivers of the haze, Dr Ewing explained how difficult it is to depend on political action to push for a change of haze situation faced by Singapore and its neighbouring countries, given the relatively non-confrontational framework which ASEAN adopts and the relatively difficult task to pinpoint who exactly are the culprits in the burning of the plantations as different ministries in Indonesia have their own version of concession maps.

The evening was closed with an engaging discussion over various ways of how consumers can help to deter unethical farming practice by corporates and the limitations regarding the measures.

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