Thousands of schools in Malaysia and Indonesia were ordered shut Thursday amidst concerns about air quality. More than 1.7 million students have been sent home in response to toxic haze, a by-product of the forest fires that have been raging across the islands of Borneo and Sumatra since early last week.
The haze is the worst the area has seen since 2015. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Azrul Mohd Khalib, the CEO of Galen Center for Health and Social Policy, explained that peat fires and burning forests contributed to the strength of that year’s haze: “the stakes and risks are increasing [this year] as this dry season may be more serious compared to what was experienced in the last few years.”
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has sent 6,000 troops and water-bombing planes to combat the blaze, and, with permission from its Meteorology Department, Malaysia has tried using cloud seeding to fight the fires with rain. But while the number of hotspots erupting has stabilized, the haze continues to churn. It seems unlikely to abate until the end of the dry season, which could last well into October.
Meanwhile, Malaysian authorities have noted a “sharp increase” in outpatients at government hospitals as air quality continues to worsen. Poor visibility has closed airports in the Indonesian region of Borneo, and environmental concerns have been raised about the air polluted by the haze. “The amount of carbon emissions generated from the fires will present a major setback to the global fight against climate change,” Singapore’s Environment Chief Masagos Zulkifli said. “Dozens” of endangered orangutans have also contracted respiratory infections from the haze, Al Jazeera reports.
Fires are to be expected at the height of the dry season, but slash-and-burn land clearing practices contribute to the frequency and strength of the flames. It is a favored method of the Malaysian-owned palm oil plantations that Indonesia claims to be the perpetrators. Of course, none of the corporations indicated will admit involvement in the larger blaze, but Malaysia has promised to make its corporations put out their own fires. In a quote taken by Al Jazeera, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said, “If we find that [the companies] are unwilling to take action [themselves], we may have to pass a law which will make them responsible for fires in their property, even if it’s outside of Malaysia.”
Frankly, it is awful that it has taken this long for corporations to be held responsible for their own impacts on the environment, and they will surely get away with more while the law is being drafted, if it gets passed at all. But it is refreshing to see a leader take responsibility for crises caused by corporations in his country and promise to prevent problems in the future. Mahathir’s willingness to wield executive power to protect his citizens is a hopeful sign.
Still, we must be wary. Pardon the understatement, but it would not be the first time a leader promised to make change and then dropped the issue as soon as it stopped being politically convenient. No matter Prime Minister Mahathir’s promises of policy at the moment, the law can only be beneficial when it is on the books. It does not look as heroic to pass an anti-arson law after the flames have died down, but if we want to prevent this toxic haze from coming back, we have to make sure that the bill does not choke.
In the meantime, rather than trading barbs back and forth across the border, I call upon Indonesia and Malaysia to focus their efforts on protecting the health and wellness of their citizenry. Only then will we be able to breathe a sigh of relief.
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