Thursday 20 June 2013

The Haze Craze

In Western Europe life grinds to a halt when more than a few centimetres of snow falls, or the thermometer creeps above thirty degrees. No one will talk about anything else than the weather.

In Singapore heat or torrential rain faze no one, but we do we have something else: The Haze. Every year in the dry season Indonesian farmers set fire to their land. To clear out old crops, wasteland or forest, to fertilise it with ash. Palm oil, predominantly, but also other crops. The smoke caused by these slash and burn farming techniques drifts over the narrow sea straits to Singapore, where people will have a cough, and a few days where they think the neighbours should really stop having so many barbecues.

This year it is different. With a larger than normal amount of fires, and an unusual dry and cloudless spell, the haze has reached crazy heights. For days the Pollutant Standard Indexes (PSI) have been soaring, from below 50, Singapore’s normal, fresh air, to the first shocking time the ‘unhealthy’ 100 mark was crossed. How we now long for that clear 100 PSI sky…

From 150, it went to 200, ‘very unhealthy’, and while everyone was glued to screens showing latest figures it kept creeping up, to 300, ‘hazardous’. Today, for the first time ever in Singapore, the mark of 400 was crossed. This is no reason for a celebration. A PSI of 400+ is simply extremely hazardous. People are recommended to stay indoors, whack on the aircon, wear facemasks that are sold-out nationwide, and refrain from doing any strenuous exercise.

And just this week we moved to a rickety pre-war bungalow, without aircon, with leaky doors, where we planned to spend most of our time outdoors, in the large and lush garden. Initially we rejoiced. When the haze hit central Singapore we stayed relatively fresh in our forest, the high trees filtering out the worst of the mess. But day-by-day the smoke crept through leaves and now it has reached us too. In the morning we wake up with a headache, a sick feeling in our stomach and a soar throat. Our hair smells like a chip shop.

Only yesterday I complained we were all a bunch of spoiled expats, who just got too excited. Facebook was fuller with haze than the sky, with questions about where to get air-purifiers, or the best ways to get out of this place. Today, with a PSI over 400, I can’t even speak to you about those more important things, about the poor locals in Indonesia living in what must be an inferno, the affected wildlife, the Western countries that share responsibility for this problem, as it is us buying these products, us not wanting to pay more so these farmers can use other, more sustainable, expensive and time consuming methods to clear land. I don’t have the energy. My head hurts too much.

How long this will last? No-one knows, days, weeks, or even a month. It all depends on the weather, but the haze blocks our red stinging eyes looking up at the sky, praying for rain. Rain that still has not come. So we stay inside, play games, shuffle the furniture, watch films, and try to entertain the kids. Today the summer holidays have started. Expats rush out of the city, flights back home have sold out. We are not going, not yet. So we will have no outdoor play, very little friends, and aching bodies.

This afternoon, we will attempt a rain dance. Will you join us?

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