It’s that time of the year again when those of us in South-East Asia get to cough our lungs out and see things through teary vision. I am of course, talking about the annual haze season where much of peninsular South-East Asia gets covered in a haze, which is caused by the burning of forest fires in Indonesia and spreads through out the region. The haze, which starts in Indonesia, ends up covering all of Singapore and much of Malaysia and in the last 24-hours, the air quality in this part of the world becomes particularly bad. The air quality in Singapore alone in the last 24-hours has been particularly bad as this report from our local TV station reports:
Simply put, the most dangerous act of the day was to leave the house to get to a cybercafe to type this blog entry. It’s like living in a camp fire gone wrong. I’m living in urban Singapore and getting a constant smell of burning.
The best part about the haze, is the fact that it isn’t new. I first lived through the haze in 1994, when I first returned to Singapore to join the army and the haze is still here in the final quarter of 2019. The entire region knows what is the cause of the haze and probably knows the steps that have to be taken. Yet the haze still occurs on a yearly basis. It is the only issue in ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) where the principle of “non-interference” does not apply in as much as the Prime Ministers of Malaysia and Singapore grumble to the President of Indonesia. After the grumbling, nothing actually gets done.
The reason is simple – the palm oil industry is a big player in the economy of the region. It keeps small holder farms a major source of income and as a journalist who covered the haze said, “It’s not going to get solved as long as its cheaper to pour kerosene on land than it is to clear it physically.” Indonesia will not clamp down on the industry because it is a major contributor to the economy. The consumers in Malaysia and Singapore won’t give up products of palm oil. The argument that looking after the economy and getting people fed always takes precedence over hugging trees and animals still beats in the heart of the region.
If lived far away in England as I did in my student days, I guess I could accept this argument. In the West, environmentalism is sometimes seen as a “hippy” issue that university students adapt in their idealistic phase in life.
However, I don’t live far away from the problem. I’ve live in the problem and despite living in a region that pundits call a “future engine of growth,” I and the rest of the region has to spend at least a month of every year breathing air that is at best unpleasant and at worst dangerous. I’m forced to wonder if “bad air” is the price for the economic wonder that I enjoy
The answer is that it should not be. I take the view that at one stage, you could argue that an obsessive focus on bringing in the money was a necessity. ASEAN, lead by Singapore and followed by the rest of the region, happily took the heavy industries from the West because it was a necessity to the cause of development.
However, technology and human development is now such that I can’t see a reason for why we can’t have “economic development” and “environmental preservation” at the same time.
I look at Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan Kingdom that is sandwiched between China and India as an example of a country trying to create a “developed” economy along with a clean environment. Bhutan famously talks about having “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) rather than “Gross Domestic Product,” (GDP). The simplistic argument being – you may be rich but you may not be happy.
Actually, the concept of GNH is a lot deeper than that. It looks at a variety of factors that make up your happiness. Economics is an important factor in happiness but it only one of various factors. The Bhutanese are realistic to importance of having money and ensuring the people get fed and have access to facilities. The King of Bhutan makes it a point to travel round the country to understand the very human problems of the people – namely do they have enough food to eat or can they make a living.
However, economics is only one factor that is looked at. Another factor is the environment. In the South-East-Asian context, that would mean having clean air to breath. In this respect Bhutan, is obsessive. By law 60 percent of the country must be forest (it’s currently at 70 percent) and there Bhutanese citizens are legally obliged to plant trees. While Bhutan does have issues (firewood being a source of energy for many families), the average Bhutanese enjoys clean air, 365 days a year and that’s in a country sandwiched between the world’s worst polluter (China) and the third worst (India).
Here’s the analogy – at my very worst, I probably bring home as much as an average Bhutanese citizen. However, every year, I have to breath air that is dangerous for me. The Bhutanese does not. I may have more money but breathing dirty and dangerous air puts my health at risk and therefore my personal happiness.
Bhutan’s government spends extra money to ensure the welfare of animals is protected. They give away free electricity (generated from hydropower or solar) to rural areas to stop people from needing to burn fossil fuels (wood) and the largest source of revenue into the economy comes selling clean hydropower to India, thus reducing the need for the Indians to use carbon based fuels (admittedly dams come with their own issues, though on the balance of things, the alternatives are worse). Bhutan is famously carbon negative and the entire country is effectively a carbon sink for its two larger and more polluting neighbours.
I understand that not every country can be Bhutan. Yet, if Bhutan can feed its people without choking them on a yearly basis, why can’t we do the same in South East Asia, where we have easier access to the global financial markets and technologies. Indonesia may be the place where the haze causing fires start but Malaysia and Singapore are not powerless to stopping it. Farmers in Indonesia need access to cleaner and affordable ways to clear land, which I’m sure Malaysian and Singaporean investors can find a way of helping to provide. Malaysian and Singaporean consumers need to hold the palm oil industry to account. Alternatives to palm oil can be found, which should be enough of an incentive for the industry to look into clearing up its act.
In an era where we’re talking about cars that drive themselves, there is no reason why people have to be choked by man-made forest fires every year.
Original article taken from here.