Friday, October 20, 2006

The cost of "The Haze"

(No) Thanks to 'The Haze', I am now resting at home with a drippy nose, tearing eyes, and a headache. Well, I suppose it is a break from work but then loading these medicines with labels like "Poison - Not to be dispensed physician's prescription" into my body can't be a good thing...

Indonesia's fires and the resulting haze strike with such regularity on an annual basis that when we say "The Haze", practically every Singaporean, and those in affected countries, would know what the term refers to.

From IDRC Books (, "INDONESIA'S FIRES AND HAZE - The Cost of Catastrophe (with a 2006 update)":
From September to November of 1997, raging fires in Indonesia pumped enough smoke into the air to blanket the entire region in haze, reaching as far north as southern Thailand and the Philippines, with Malaysia and Singapore being particularly affected. An area the size of Costa Rica was completely devastated. The lives and health of 70 million people were jeopardized and species already endangered, such as orangutans, rhinos, and tigers, were pushed closer to extinction. The fires — deliberately set for the most part — were certainly one of the century's worst environmental disasters.

The Haze started as far back as 1994, but it was not until 1997 when things got particularly bad:
The haze is not a new phenomenon for Southeast Asia or for Singapore. It has been a yearly occurrence since 1994, though it has varied in severity and duration. During that time, most people saw the haze as an inconvenience, and a "passing event", lasting for about a fortnight at the most. The 1997 haze, however, changed these perceptions. The haze stayed for more than two months, and occupied the headlines with both government and public attention.
This CNA article (12 Oct 2006) reports an estimated US$50m economic loss incurred by Singapore since the start of the haze this year. I cannot visualise US$50b, but I can appreciate the impact. The economic loss is very real. Past few weekends, my wife and I were forced to remain at home when we would've gone out for dim-sum at a restuarant. At work, I have colleagues being laid up by symptoms resulting from The Haze. The loss of productivity is very real, not just for those laid up from work but also for staff who have to cover the duties. Opportunity costs do translate to real dollars.

I wonder how many people would be deterred from visiting the library because it's too polluted to leave their homes. Having fewer library visitors and loans is not a good thing when library employees' performance bonuses are tied to indicators like Loans and Visits.

I remember encountering The Haze while in my early 20s. Even when it was at its worse in 1997, it remained merely an inconvenience to me. I didn't suffer from any resulting health problems. I was younger and fitter. Like everyone in their early 20s, you think you're invincible, and it felt like it was so.

But as they say, "Age catches up with you". Almost a decade later, The Haze has become more than just mere inconvenience. It's become 'A Problem' for me. Physically I'm not coping as well. I'm sure this would be true for others.

The economic and even social fallout will worsen in coming years if the haze continues to appear with regularity. It has already been acknowledged that Singapore has the "fastest ageing population in Asia" and that "the effects of this demographic transition will be pervasive". It's logical to assume the older one gets, the tougher if would be to cope with physical stress.

According to this 1998 GSETA report (see Part c), 99% of the Indonesian forest fires were man-made for the 1997 haze. I'm sure that statistic still applies today. If it's man-made, then something can be done about it. But that's largely up to the Indonesian government. There would not (and should not) be direct intervention by the other affected nations. Even indirect punitive measures would at most penalise Indonesia but not eradicate the haze.

Perhaps what Singapore can control is our ability to adapt to the haze when it strikes. I, for one, would certainly welcome the ability and leeway to just stay home to work if the haze strikes and air quality reaches an unhealthy level. If a meeting with colleague is required, we could Instant Message or conduct it via Video Conference. All the more reason for employees employers to redesign work and work hours.

As I look out my window, the sky is a grey pallor. There's flecks of rain now. Hopefully the downpour will intensify and wash away the dust particles.

At the clinic, I asked the doctor if there was anything else I could do to avoid being affected by The Haze, or to reduce the resulting symptoms. He said he could only precribe me more medicine (about a week more) to deal with the runny nose and discomfort in the eyes. More poison in my body. If the haze doesn't kill me, maybe the medicine will.

It just sucks.

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  1. Anonymous5:09 pm

    That's terrible, Ivan! If only you could take a trip, doctor's orders, to Perth or somewhere like that...

  2. Anonymous7:04 pm

    Wow the haze sounds awful! I remember the 1997 haze was bad enough.. is this time around worse than that?

  3. LOL, CW -- it's not as bad as it sounds lah. Oh yeah sure -- I can imagine the doctor telling me, "Ivan, you need to recuperate in Australia. I'm ordering your employer to send you with full pay, without delay!" In my dreams!

    Hi Sydneylibrarian, it seems worse, maybe since I'm especially conscious about it now. The 1997 haze lasted 2 months while this one maybe shorter so far. I'm not sure. All I know is that better or worse, it's bad. :(

  4. Get well soon dude! When I was back in Singapore, the start of the haze was already bad. Didn't think it'd last so long... ouch!

  5. Anonymous12:51 am

    Poor Ivan...wish you a speedy recovery!!!

    The past few weeks have been a torture too...I have runny nose, itchy reddish eyes, headache, and a nose that cannot resist being itchy whenever it's owner is outdoors....wish I could bill Indonesia for all my doctor bills and medicine...

    I've been torturing my tortured tummy with tons of medicine as well....

    hope the haze goes away...or hope someone invents a large huge sky fan to blow all the haze away to the place it came from....:(

  6. In 1997 I managed to escape to beautiful Seychelles for 1 week; and got paid too. Too bad no such luck this year. But thankfully, I am not much affected by the haze. Just itching eyes. Maybe all that coconut husk burning from my kampong days help.


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