Saturday, July 6, 2013

In a Haze

As it turned out, I couldn't have picked a worse time to return to the Little Red Dot.

Every year there's a haze situation. It results from bad agricultural practices in neighboring Sumatra. Palm oil companies use illegal slash-and-burn techniques to clear land for more oil palm plantations. These plantations have been in the news before, because they replace diverse rainforest habitats with monotonous palm trees that support almost no wildlife. As such, they're devastating to already endangered species such as Sumatran orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, lar gibbons, and many, many more.

However, this year was unlike any other. At first the haze wasn't anything that I hadn't seen in the years that I'd lived there. It was no worse than when I blogged about it in 2010. But that gradually changed. Over the next two to three days, the visibility got worse and worse as the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) skyrocketed. Soon the news was covering only haze-related issues. The PSI was always on the corner of the TV screen. Then the news reported that the PSI was the highest that it had ever been, shattering the  record of 226 set during the Asian Haze Incident of 1997.
The stadium on Pioneer Road, through the haze
Well, at least I won't get a sunburn...

The government was advising people to wear heavy-duty N95 masks to cope with the unhealthy amounts of pollution. People were freaking out and stockpiling the masks, creating artificial shortages. When I tried to get one, the stores I went to were sold out. Lines were over an hour long at the one store I found that still had them. I opted to continue wearing my floppy, ineffective surgical mask instead.
Nothing says style like sweating through your surgical mask

While Singaporeans struggled to cope with the haze, the Singaporean government was in constant contact with the Indonesian government, offering assistance, and I'm sure, putting on some pressure for them to get the situation under control on the quick. Indonesian officials did not react well to this, and one accused Singapore of "acting like a child." The relationship between the two governments seemed a little strained, which, as a foreigner abroad, made me a little nervous.

But I was more nervous about the fact that I was starting to feel the effects of the haze on my health. I was staying on the fourth floor of an apartment building, and all week I'd been easily hustling up the four flights of stairs. On the day that the PSI shot above 400 for the first time, I found myself stopping to wheeze on the second floor landing.

One of the strangest things about the whole situation was seeing nearly deserted places that were typically bustling with activity. I went to meet some friends for dinner at Clarke Quay, which is a popular spot for dining along the river. Not that day - everyone was eating inside, and it looked like a lot of people had just stayed home altogether. Holland Village was also eerily quiet. The MRT trains were less crowded than usual, and they were slower - speeds had been slowed to cope with low visibility.

The haze at Clarke Quay

The haze eased off, dropping below 100 in my last two days there. Even so, the air still smelled like bonfire. I never thought I'd be so happy to breathe the fresh St Louis air!!

Despite my temporary reprieve, the government warned that the fires are incredibly hard to fight, and could rage on for months. The seasonal winds will continue to blow toward Singapore, and the haze is likely to yo-yo up and down, possibly into September or October. It's a horrible situation, but the silver lining is that it has forced people to think about palm oil plantations and the devastating effects that they're having on the environment. Boycotting unsustainable palm oil is a way to help protect endangered species habitat, and to ensure that Indonesians, Malaysians, and Singaporeans have fresh air to breathe. If you're interested in learning more, this is a great resource! And this!