The here and now and a bit of way back then

I relived my journey to 40 and found there's so much more to say

All the air we can breathe – #XtheHaze

on November 16, 2015

The other morning as I walked outside with #1 and 2 to wait for the School Bus to arrive, I immediately noticed the cool fresh air. It was just before 8am and after #1 and 2 were waved off to school, it seemed like a shame if I didn’t spend a few more moments appreciating the outdoors.

  

One thing I miss about the UK is the change of seasons, something I will never outgrow. How by now, many of you are thinking about the cold winter months drawing in and layering up with long sleeved t shirts, cosy jumpers and a smart warm coat. I really miss the UK once it hits September. Not least because September marks the end of another year in Singapore I wasn’t expecting to be celebrating. More so because September brings a welcome relief from the heat of summer in London. The hot, uncomfortable journey to and from work on the Tube inwardly grimacing as you touch sweaty forearms with the next passenger. The still nights unable to sleep properly. The idea that as it’s September, rather than expect it, any sunshine is a bonus.

Here, in the tropics you don’t experience that acute change between the seasons. That’s what I always thought before but actually live here long enough and you do notice the difference between hot and muggy most of the day to hot and muggy all day long and well into the evening.

We’ve just entered the rainy season and what a relief that is. Temperatures can drop to a comfortable 25 degrees. Not for long I should add. Only until it stops raining. It’s now the sort of weather you can sit outside a cafe and have coffee without getting fidgety. You can go out running for an hour and feel like you’ve been for a run instead of fighting against a wave of treacle. #1, 2 and 3 can tear around and not end up a big sweaty mess. We may even be able to spend a whole day, actually let’s just say half a day outdoors and not feel like we need a lie down from being drained of energy afterwards. The heat really does take it out of you like that.

Every time I heard someone say how they would love to live in all year round sunshine, I wanted to counter it with how it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. How ungrateful does that sound. Only because I personally am not a fan of all things hot. In the tropics the hot weather is seen as a given. As such, an outdoor existence is seen as a given. Whilst in many other countries for some part of the year, you may have to spend days indoors because of cold, wet weather, we never really get that in Singapore. #1, 2 and 3 can spend a lot of time getting a consistent vitamin D fix. I was starting to take this for granted.

That was until this year’s Haze episode happened. In my seven years of tropical living this is the third time I’ve really felt the effects of the annual burning of the forests in Indonesia to clear land for unsustainable palm oil plantations. The post I wrote back in September after the Haze initially hit #XtheHaze – We Breathe What We Buy was to talk about my lack of understanding about what the Haze is and that it’s not just about one country, one product or one quick fix solution to stop the Haze from returning next year. Or even to stop it recurring from this current episode.

  
As I look outdoors this evening because we can actually sit with the balcony doors open again, it is hard to imagine that just a couple weeks ago we spent day after day with windows and doors closed shut against the outside. All outdoor pursuits were cancelled from swimming, running and play time. Even just walking 10 minutes to the shops on some days. School was cancelled one day. People who could were leaving Singapore on Haze breaks. There was a feeling of Haze rage in the air mingling with slightly acrid smell of burning.

There was a huge presence on social media about the Haze. What was it? Who was to blame? Why was nothing being done about it? The same questions came up over and over again. My own post was shared and viewed almost 2,000 times. (I know, it will never happen again!) But that showed the extent of people talking about the Haze and wanting answers. And the longer the Haze lingered with its bad smell, the more people talked about it. The WWF led #XtheHaze campaign – http://www.webreathewhatwebuy,com gathered much needed momentum and publicity. Local media in Singapore picked up on the growing public and consumer demand for more knowledge and coverage on the Haze issue. It was great for the campaign although to date still only 13,000 pledges have been gathered from the public at large to support calls for sustainable Haze free palm oil even though so many people were outraged at current unsustainable practices.

But no matter how much campaigning and behind the scenes efforts are going on, it didn’t change what was happening in the here and now. No one could have predicted how long the Haze would last for. After all, in previous years it was barely noticed or it stopped affecting Singapore after a week or so. This time was definitely different. Every morning you would draw open the curtains to find a grey fog. An unnatural grey fog that is. It looked like how you would imagine a cold misty morning that you may be waking up to yourself these days. But take a walk outside and there was nothing fresh or bracing about this particular grey foggy morning. The air felt dirty. And in your head it is so confusing thinking it ought to be a cold winter’s day but it’s actually still tropical muggy.

Having been so used to open balcony doors at home all the day, it suddenly felt weird to live in 24 hour air con. I was certainly cool unlike my usual sweaty self. You’d think I’d be happier for it but I didn’t like it. It felt restrictive. And it was restrictive. Totally. No outdoor time. No running around the block. No taking the kids swimming. No sitting outside a cafe for a coffee or pint. Nothing was going on at all. The streets were noticeably more vacant. No thought of going to any of the outdoor attractions. The effect on such businesses must have been high. But the indoor play gyms, air purifier suppliers, cinemas, pharmaceuticals must have made a mint.

A growing fixation with the PSI levels started to develop. PSI is the Pollutants Standard Index. I’m not sure how they measure it but they give you a guide and what’s considered healthy or unhealthy, especially for certain groups of people like the elderly, children and those with underlying respiratory conditions. On a regular day like now, it’s about 60. Was it over 100 yet? It’s slowly creeping up to 200. It’s over 200! Oh my gosh, evacuate it’s about to hit 300! We can’t breathe! But of course we can. The odd thing is that is in many other cities, this is considered quite normal. So what exactly are we complaining about? Well the main issue is that this can be entirely preventable. It is completely a situation created by people, corporates and financing.

And as the weeks dragged by, and Haze rage and Haze malais set in, I started to get annoyed at some of the comments and concerns some people were talking about on social media. The Haze would pass. It was just a question of when. Yes it was a nuisance. It was unpleasant. It hindered our very good quality of life in Singapore but we could easily safeguard ourselves by staying indoors, wearing the N95 masks when outdoors, even leaving the country. That’s not to say the concerns and opinions voiced were not valid, they were but I felt some degree of perspective was being lost. Whilst we could stay cosy cold indoors, what about those who had jobs outdoors? The construction workers, the manual labourers who take care of keeping Singapore as clean as it is famous for being. Some households who do not have the luxury of air con and sealed windows. Some who do not have homes at all. Perspective is a great asset to keep hold of.

Whilst fingers were pointed at Indonesia as a whole as the cause of all this, the fires continued to rage through the forests of Sumatra and Kalimantan. Ravaging wildlife habitat and forcing people from their homes. An N95 mask wasn’t going to make any difference at all when PSI levels were over 2,000. The images from Kalimantan, Borneo showed not a grey foggy day but a thick yellow dense fog. The photos looked like they had a sepia affect which of course they didn’t. It put into perspective how hard done by we felt in Singapore. But look at what is happening to those innocent bystanders who are not benefiting from any of this activity. So it was great to see voluntary organisations galvanise into action to try and do something at ground level. Voluntary movements such as http://www.relief.sg and Let’s Help Kalimantan who have a Facebook page detailing all the work and call for support they need gathering funds and sending supplies over to the people of Indonesia who need it right now. Who need it the most. Who probably know even less of what is going on than we do here.

  

The long term repercussions of this Haze episode is not yet known. The cost to the health of the people living in close quarters to the areas where the forests burned for weeks. Still are burning. 50 hotspots are still being reported everyday. The loss of wildlife species and habitat. The loss of reputation for some even. There have been many promises by government that this will change and we will hopefully not see such a prolonged episode of Haze. I can’t say it’s not going to happen again next year. Even the Indonesian government has declared they need three years to turn things around. But this would be with all concerned stakeholders doing their bit to make this change.

I met a staunch conservationist last night who is right in saying we need to continue wielding the microphone and making noise about what causes the Haze and how it must be changed. Just because the wind has changed direction and the forest fire residue has been blown away from Singapore to some place else, it doesn’t mean it’s over. It’s not. And right now, like what has happened in previous years, it’s out of sight and seemingly out of mind.

What this has shown me is just how detrimental our actions are on the Earth’s natural resources. It compounds again, that to save the Earth is everyone’s responsibility. In many different ways. The Haze is but one issue. Protect the Forests. Save the Seas. Look after critically endangered wildlife species. Climate change. Food supply shortage. Rising sea levels. Diminishing polar ice caps. Just a few issues I can mention off the top of my head right now.

But for now, take a breath and appreciate the clean air around you. It’s not something you can take for granted. Whilst I only got a little taste of a polluted, toxic environment, even just for two months is long enough to say this is not what I want #1, 2 and 3 to inherit. So whilst the Haze has gone for now, we still need to do so much more collectively to ensure it doesn’t come back for all concerned.

  

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