Friday, 21 June 2013

The Great Singaporean Haze

Hazy day in Singapore, 2013
Hazy view outside my window
This is the most talked about topic in Singapore this week. And you're likely talking about it under your N95 mask.

Singapore is known to the world for being green and clean. For tourists who have heard so much about this must come as a shock when they step off the airport in Singapore this week. The whole place is shrouded in murky haze.

You may ask yourself, Am I in Singapore or Beijing Airport? Have I boarded the wrong plane?

No, you haven't. You just boarded the wrong time.

Singapore isn't Beijing for a number of reason when it comes to the question of pollution. Beijing is prone to have murky sky because of its climate and geography.

The hazy days tends to occur in winter in Beijing while Singapore's temperature never really ever dropped below 25°C. And this photo is taken during noon.

In terms of geography, both Beijing and LA are shaped like a bowl, which shelters the pollution from being dispersed by wind. Singapore, on the other hand, is quite flat.

Having lived here for over 3 years, I had seen some brief period of this hazy days a couple of times before. It usually lasted for a day, and then it's gone. So I didn't pay much attention.

This time, not only it's much worse, but it lasted for more than a few days. A few explanations rushed through my head. A volcano eruption had occured in one of the chain of islands of the Indonesian Archipelago, and the ashes got blown to Singapore. I speculated.

I cast my mind to the historic Krakatoa eruption of 1883. Of course, this one is much smaller in scale. This explains the burnt smell. But I quickly dismissed this fanciful scenario.

The next scenario that runs through my mind is bushfire. Living in Sydney for more than 30 years, I'm all too familiar to Aussie bushfire. In dry years, like those in the 1990s, it happened almost every Summer. The haze and the smell of it was no stranger to me. So my next guess would be bushfire somewhere in Singapore, or across the border in Malaysia. But then, Singapore is anything but dry. Humidity is very high most of the time.

Both of these guesses were wrong. It isn't a volcano eruption in Indonesia or a bushfire in Singapore, but bushfires in Indonesia. I just never expected the kind of scale of bushfire occurred in Indonesia could cause such a massive smog in Singapore. It must have been enormous.

Usually, you see an occasional Singaporean wearing masks on the streets. In the last few days, the number increases to about easily 10 - 20%. I also saw a guy in suites selling facemask in the street for 0.50SGD a pop. I don't know they're n95 masks, which we're advised to use for any effectiveness. They're quite expensive. Most pharmacies/chemists have run out of them. They probably made the biggest sale of masks since the SARS scare.

I found myself for the 1st time in my life wearing a facemask. Something quite unimaginable - at the rarest of cases - in Australia. Even when there was a bushfire, I didn't see people wear masks on he Sydney streets. Not even the during the SARS epidemic.

Actually, what bothers me the most isn't the nose, but my eyes. They've stinging sensation. The same sensation that I got I suffered from hayfever caused by pollen. Somebody told me my eyes were bloodshot. That really doesn't happen often.

Everyone prays for rains. It didn't come. The 1st 3 weeks of June must be quite dry in this region of the world. The people who carry out this scorch earth practice should know about the weather very well.

Understandably, this haze is all over the news. And I just come to realize that this slash-and-burn method of agriculture had been happened for the last few decades without any decrease. Indeed, this year is one of the worst. The PSI (Pollutant Standards Index) reading shot up to a record of 401. Remember that the typical PSI reading for Singapore is around 50 and under. PSI > 100 is considered unhealthy. PSI > 300 is considered hazardous. And PSI > 400 would be called the "Don't leave home without a mask" level.

P.S. Rain comes on 26 Jun. But the PSI level has dropped below 100 in the previous 3 days. Thank you Lah !

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