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How to Make the Air Quality Better by Changing the Way We Shop (The Challenges of Air Pollution in Malaysia: A Malaysian NGO’s Perspective)

Articles, Blog /

A keynote speech delivered at the 2018 International Conference on Environmental Sustainability, March 16th 2018 at Taichung City, Taiwan

by Yasmin Rasyid
B.Sc. Biology (Duke), B.Arts Religion (Duke), M.Sc. Biotechnology (Malaya), PhD. Candidate (Malaya)
Vice Chairman of MENGO, Founder & President of EcoKnights

We take the air around us for granted.

In moments like these, we enjoy the breeze and freshness of the air and the amazing quality of the environment. Unfortunately there are many parts of the world in which clean air is the most precious thing they can only dream of.

And we seem to conveniently forget about the important relationship between the quality of the air we breathe and the human activities that take place on this planet.

Data from the World Health Organization shows that almost 14 percent of all deaths worldwide in 2012 were attributable to air pollution, with most occurring in low- and middle-income countries. In Africa, premature deaths from unsafe sanitation or childhood malnutrition pale in comparison to deaths due to air pollution, and it comes at a huge economic cost: over 400 billion US dollars as of 2013, according to a study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Air pollution is the world’s biggest environmental health risk.

Thirteen years ago, when my environmental activism days were at its peak, I was also a young mother to a three year old adorable girl. As a first time mum, and as an environmentalist, I was very particular about raising my daughter in the best planet-friendly way possible. From the food we fed her, to making sure we provide the best organic products for her skin, we were parents who were trying our best to raise a healthy child in a very environmentally challenged planet. And we thought we were doing well.

Until August 11th 2005 arrived.

Malaysia faced the worse air pollution crisis when Mia turned three. A state of emergency was announced in the country and the beautiful and distinctive Kuala Lumpur skyline disappeared from everyone’s sight. The smog-covered skyline stirred fear, panic and chaos across the entire country. This was the first time the state of emergency had been imposed in Malaysia since the September 1997 haze.

This was the first time in my life, as a mother, I felt helpless.

You see, Mia has had mild bronchitis since she was young. When the horrible haze exceeded the hazardous health warning level, my husband and I were making daily trips to the clinic so that Mia could get her doses of nebulizer.

But it was not helping her.

The haze in 2005 was the worse Malaysia experienced as the entire country was in a grid lock and stand still. Schools were shut down as the air was too toxic for children. Offices were empty as employees were dealing with severe health complications related to the air. The construction industry halted as working conditions were too bad for them to continue building.

The quality of air in Malaysia is measured by the Air Pollutant Index, or API. Clean air would record an API measurement of between 0 and 50, while an API measurement of 300 is already hazardous and requires a state of emergency. In August 2005, the API was measured at above 500. This prompted school closures, flight cancellations and virtual shutdowns of towns and cities. At ground zero, the API was reported to be at 2000. You can imagine the magnitude of the air pollution.

As the haze worsen up to the point that even when we had wet cloth stuffed under the doors to prevent the polluted air from coming in to our house, we were clearly defeated. Rather than stay on in Kuala Lumpur and endure the haze which was worsening, we were left with no other alternatives but to pack our entire family and leave. Leave to a place where the air was clearer and where Mia can breathe normally.

This was in 2005, and since then, the haze in Malaysia has contributed to the deterioration of our air quality. And every year since then, we have a new fashion trend in our country – mask wearing.

So what is the reason of the haze that has blanketed our country with a thick and grey cloud?

Why are we experiencing an increase incidence of bad air quality in Malaysia?

And what should be done to address this?

As a country, Malaysia, and typical of many countries in ASEAN, is seeing the progression of its economy and population. With rising population, and the need to connect everyone, the landscape of ASEAN countries has replaced its rich forests with roads, buildings, industrial activities, mass agricultural activities – in short, a significant clearing and sacrifice of green areas and forests.

We have seen that many of the reduction in green spaces in ASEAN countries facilitate the growth and acceleration of man-made activities that are clearly impacting the surrounding ambient air quality.

Take the oil palm plantation industry for instance.

Every year, in several parts of Indonesia and even Malaysia, small palm oil, pulp and paper plantations typically clear the vegetation in their plantations. Although we have global guidelines and best management practices for plantations, there is still a population of small-scale farmers who use the slash-and-burn method to clear the vegetation. The slash-and-burn method is fast, easy and cheap. You see, this method often spins out of control and when spread to nearby forests, causes huge areas of forests to be sacrificed and burnt.

Many small scale plantation owners manage their plantations without proper adherence or respect for the environment. Additionally, some of these plantations are encroaching into peatlands which are not the best places to plant oil palm. A small burning cigarette butt if thrown irresponsibly at a dry area in the plantation has the capacity to start a huge wild fire. Peat fire is unlike other kinds of fire as it burns underground for a long time, and spreads horizontally to other peat swamps and continues this perpetual cycle of underground fire. We need more plantations to focus on committing to sustainable approaches and systems in their businesses and to be accountable.

Local communities who are at Ground Zero of these burnings suffer the most. In Indonesia, the government claimed that more than 500,000 people suffered severely and resulted in serious respiratory illnesses and even death.

In Malaysia, although we are hundreds of kilometres away, the impact was still significant.

Other contributors to the deterioration of air quality in Malaysia have a lot to do with the challenge of balancing legislations and laws with enforcement within the industrial and manufacturing sector and vehicular emissions.

Every year in Malaysia, close to 500,000 new cars make its way into the hustle and bustle of the city. Yet ironically, Malaysia has established many local and global commitments to address a reduction in the country’s carbon intensity, and as such, be a more sustainable country.

However, despite the great initiatives and policies, we, as a nation fall short of enforcing these policies and make relevant and practical solutions on the ground.

Sadly, the green agenda is not picking up as fast as we would like in our local politics and ministries.

In terms of balancing economic growth and environmental protection, it is clear in the Malaysian context that we are still struggling to maintain a healthy air quality for all. The good news is there are interventions and initiatives that are being championed by civil society organizations, NGOs and even government agencies to balance both economic growth and environmental health.

What are some of the efforts of NGOs in raising awareness to the public on the importance of good air quality?

One of the key interventions is in promoting awareness and education among Malaysians on the relationship between their consumption patterns and behaviour and the environment.

We have to admit that we, you and me, are the main contributors to the deterioration of the air quality we feel and experience around us.

Consumption drives production, and in this case, when you population grows and the demand for consumer products increase, it is only a natural progression that the industry would need to clear more land, build more factories, increase their energy consumption, travel further distances – all this, to make sure, we as the consumer, get the products we desire.

From our chocolates, to shampoo, cakes to our favourite cup of milk coffee, almost everything we consume or put on our body is most likely palm oil based. And the demand for this oil is not going down anytime soon. As we chase to meet the market demands and needs for palm oil to create these wonderful products we so need in our lives, we are indirectly contributing to the by-product of plantations – the environmental impacts.

In short, we are hurting our lungs and health simply through the unsustainable ways we shop, buy and purchase.

What has been done to stop the haze?

In 2002, all ten Southeast Asian countries have signed an agreement to combat the issue of greater monitoring and encouragement of sustainable development, but efforts have been limited. Instead, countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia couldn’t stop blaming each other for being a contributor to the haze.

The situation is intricate. While majority of the burning of plantations start in Indonesia, the ownership of many of these plantations are Malaysian and Singaporean investors who made Singapore as their financial centre for their business.

Meanwhile, the NGOs in Malaysia are also working in other areas to address the importance of good air quality for the population.

Some of our MENGO members, such as Global Environment Center, WWF-Malaysia, Malaysian Nature Society, among others, are in the forefront of addressing air pollution issues and concerns in the country through policy engagement, public advocacy, among other areas.

Various public engagement programs from forums, to talks, to public communication and awareness raising – the NGOs are working alongside government agencies, civil societies and professional organizations – to find a holistic solution to today’s air pollution. But while the NGOs are continuing in their efforts to curb air pollution and to provide interventions that can address or solve the problems, we need to acknowledge that perhaps the real solution to air pollution in Malaysia lies in our consumption habits.

The more ignorant we are on our consumption patterns as a driving force to what we have felt and experienced, the intensity of air pollution will increase.

In the following years, Malaysians learned a very important lesson, a lesson we all need to take to heart and recognise that it requires everyone to work towards a better future. Even if you’re not an expert on air quality or oil palm plantations, everyone holds the key to solving the air pollution problems in the country.

The challenge lies in mobilizing and encouraging Malaysians to that that first bold step in addressing air pollution and to highlight the relationship between unsustainable consumption and production of palm oil in terms of our consumer behaviour and the state of environment. The process of engagement with the general public is critical today.

Fast forward to 2018, as I was heading out one day to the nearby neighbourhood grocer where my daughters and I were shopping when suddenly my little daughter asked me,

“Mum, when do we start to buy face masks again?”

I struck me that my second and youngest daughter, who was born in 2009 and is now 9 years old, grew up in an era in Malaysia where the annual haze has become a norm in her life.

For Elani, the haze is a part of her environment, in which she would need to wear a face mask to school at least for a few weeks a year.

And that’s when it hit me – we are changing the way our children are growing up. What is not normal for you and me when we were kids, is not normal to our children.

And my thought was – what about my daughters’ children?

If we, as nations that strive to balance economic development and a sustainable future, we need to be the game changers today. We need to address our indifferences, and work together holistically for a sustainable and liveable planet.

What are some of the local initiatives driven and supported by NGOs in Malaysia?

The Low Carbon City Framework, or LCCF, is a government initiative which aims to work with NGOs, local communities and businesses to address and implement low carbon solutions in the city. From energy efficiency buildings, to better designed green spaces the LCCF is currently driving efforts on the ground to decrease the city’s carbon emission and as such, contribute to better air quality in the city and for its people.

The current Environmental Quality Act 1974 is being revised and one of the new areas addressed is the inclusion of regulations and laws to green the industries. Finally, we will see the government taking the initial steps to ensure that the industry sector plays a bigger role in sustainable development in the country.

From ensuring that land use is utilized sustainably and following best management practices, to promoting the Sustainable  Development Goals Number 12 – Sustainable Consumption and Production – the Malaysians NGOs are paving the way to mobilize the public to demand for better enforcement of environmental laws and legislations; while serving as a watch dog to the media and public in areas that can help increase civil consciousness and participation in environmental issues in the country.

We know that our government and the NGOs, and soon the industry are making changes and pushing for sustainable development. But what about you and me?

Well, you and me – we just have to be better shoppers, and users of products and services. We need to be more responsible in how we consume the products that we are so accustomed to today.

The real game change for better air quality is really you and me.

So let’s start with that today.

Thank you.