The haze disaster this year is the worst, with the Air Pollutant Index (API) reaching 658 in Kuching two days ago, resulting in the declaration of a state of emergency in Sarawak, although the National Disaster Relief Management Committee and the various authorities were completely unprepared as to the various action measures that should be taken in such an eventuality.
The national haze crisis is one of the three crises which afflicted Malaysia recently, together with the twin economic crises of currency and the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange. There is a common thread in these three Malaysian crises - the problem of public confidence.
It is no exaggeration that say that there is little public confidence among Malaysians in what the government or the National Disaster Relief Management Committee are doing to deal with the haze crisis, because there had been so many flip-flops and changes of government positions in mid-stream.
For instance, the National Disaster Relief Management Committee Chairman, Datuk Mohamed Rahmat announced last Sunday that a state of emergency would be declared when the API reached 301. This was when the authorities never expected API readings to reach 301, but when this was exceeded in the next 24 hours, the API level for emergency was immediately raised to 500. No attempt was made to explain or convince the public as to why the emergency level could be changed in a matter of hours from the API level of 301 to 500.
Furthermore, Mohamed Rahmat has not been able to inspire public confidence that he is serious and committed in the mammoth task to deal with the worst haze crisis in the nation’s history.
For instance, a local environment reporter wrote in an article last Friday under the heading "Our right to clean air":
"Even as the air thickens and the skyline disappears, sending parents into a panic, the National Disaster Action Committee chairman, Datuk Mohamed Rahmat sees fit to trivialise the matter.
"At a Press conference on Monday after chairing a two-hour anti-haze meeting, Mohamed said smokers should quit especially if they have asthmatic or old people at home. When asked whether he would quit smoking too, he replied: ‘I do not have any old people at home.’
"Coming from someone who is given the heavy responsibility of managing disasters, such a remark, to say the least, is off the mark. How can the public be convinced that the Government is serious in tackling the haze problem?"
Examples of such government flip-flops and abrupt changes of positions are legion in the past few days as a result of the worsening haze, which are not conducive to instilling public confidence that the government is serious or has a proper strategy to deal with the worst air pollution in history.
It is shocking that instead of restoring public confidence in the National Disaster Relief Management Committee, the reverse is taking place.
Although one of the action guidelines for the haze emergency is to "ensure the dissemination of Air Pollutant Index to the print and electronic media as frequently as possible", the promised hourly API index has not only not been fulfilled, there has been further restriction in the information flow about air pollution in the country.
The DOE internet website giving a daily update of the API readings in the country at noon suddenly stopped functioning for three days since Friday.
There is the problem of the credibility of the API, with a lot of Malaysians believing that the API had been tampered with in giving a lower reading than was actually the case. It is most unfortunate that the authorities concerned had failed to address the importance of ensuring public confidence by giving proper explanation about the basis on which the API is derived.
I understand that the API reading is the highest reading out of five parameters of pollution. The five parameters which are analysed in the calculation of the API are carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone and particulate matter less than 10 microns (millionth of a metre) wide.
During the current haze episode, the API readings are now essentially that for particulate matter as they are the most concentrated.
The concentration of the four gases and particulate matter were measured over one cubic metre of air at 25 monitoring stations around the country. These figures are converted into indices through a conversion table and the API reading would be the reading for the most concentrated parameter.
The public are entitled to know the basis for the computation of the Air Pollutant Index (API), the actual level of concentration of various parameters that are measured, the level of gases and of all the critical components of the index.
In fact, there are people who are more worried about the four gases in the API than the particulates, which make up the five parameters for the API as they represent serious risk to health. The ozone pollutant may affect the functions of the lungs and result in chronic lung disease; sulphur dioxide will affect the breathing ability of asthmatic patients; nitrogen dioxide will cause acute lung disease such as upper respiratory tract infection and carbon monoxide will cause heart problems.
Malaysia must learn from the haze emergency and adopt a two-pronged approach: convince Indonesia to internationalise the disaster of the raging thousands of forest fires which has exposed tens of millions of people in the region to serious risk to health and life; and internally to declare war against air pollution with tough legislation and adoption of major advances in clean air technology
The Indonesian must be convinced that it had caused irreparable damages to tens of millions of people and neighbouring countries in allowing the thousands of forest and bush fires to go out of control in the country, and that it must not allow its national ego to stand in the way of fulfilling its international obligations to neighbouring countries and allow an international task force to take over the battle against the forest fires.
If there are Malaysian companies which are proved to be responsible to have started some of these fires in Indonesia, which have caused such an environmental pollution to Malaysian air quality, they should be severely dealt with whether by the Indonesian or the Malaysian authorities.
However, Malaysia cannot take the easy way out to just blame the Indonesians for the serious degradation of our air quality in the country, although we must not be too soft with Indonesia as it could not disclaim major responsibility for the haze emergency in Malaysia.
If three years ago, the Cabinet had approved the Clean Air Action Plan of the Department of Environment, the air pollution crisis today would not be so bad. This is why we must admit that it is the convergence of smoke from the forest fires in Indonesia and local sources of vehicular and factory emission as well as dust from earthworks which have created the haze disaster being faced by Malaysians.
In this connection, let those Cabinet Ministers who had opposed and blocked the approval of the Clean Air Action Plan three years ago on the ground that industry could not afford it come forward to justify their position, for they had undoubtedly contributed directly to the country being faced with the worst haze disaster in the nation’s history.
Malaysians are entitled to know who are the Cabinet Ministers who are not committed to the goals of sustained development and environmental quality as to block the Clean Air Action Plan three years ago, which could have saved the country from the present national haze disaster.
It is indeed most shocking that up to now, the Clean Air Action Plan is still a secret document protected by the Official Secrets Act. I call on the Cabinet to immediately make public the Clean Air Action Plan to make use of the national haze emergency to create public awareness of the need to declare a war against air pollution and to highlight the right of Malaysians to clean air and water.
This should be carried out by enacting tough legislation as well as making full use of the latest advances in clean air technology.