Friday, August 31, 2012

A Smoke Screen

After getting up this morning, I had a look outside the window. What I saw outside, I just could not believe. To be sure of what I was seeing is reality, I rubbed my eyes again and again. I was certainly not asleep and it was not a dream. So it was all real. Everything outside, the jet black metalled road, signal lights, the high tide spillway on the further side, the beautiful road on the embankment and tall trees beyond, was just same but with a real difference. All these things and details, which I saw, looked submerged in dense fog.

Photo taken at mid noon

My home city of Pune would have this kind of fog around, in November, fifty or sixty years ago. If you walked on the road those days, it would be difficult to see a person or a bicyclist coming towards you unless he was very near. From the 'Vetal hills', entire city would appear wrapped and sleeping under a warm fog comforter. New Delhi gets this kind of fog even today. It becomes difficult sometimes to see your own house from the courtyard. Yet, to have that kind of foggy scene in Singapore was utterly incomprehensible. It is impossible to have fog, even in your dreams, in Singapore. I soon realized that what I am seeing outside is certainly no fog and the chill, which is being felt by me, is due to the air conditioner.

As I got ready for my walk, I kept wondering about this foggy weather outside. When I was on road, It was hot and humid as usual. But it was not possible to see clearly even the traffic lights changing from green to red or vice versa. Fewer people appeared to be on the streets, I met a couple of my daily acquaintances, whom I see almost every day. They had tied up a piece of a cloth around their faces covering the nose and the mouth. I suddenly remembered that two years back, when there was a scare of bird flue or H1N1 flue in my home town Pune, everyone was moving around with their faces covered similarly. One of them mentioned to me “Oh! So much haze, difficult to breath la!” I could not make much of that comment but still indicated to him that it was the case. After some time, I also started feeling that my nose had started dripping and have a sore throat all of a sudden. I decided to return home. Inside the house, things returned to normal.

Later, when I opened the Straits Times, it became clear to me, what was happening outside. This weird phenomenon, even though being called as 'Haze' by Singaporeans, is in reality smoke and almost all parts of the city of 4 Million people was blanketed by this smoke. My house is almost on the outskirts of the city, away from the heartland. There is a good amount of forest area around here. So according to the news paper, the haze as expected to be less here. In the heartland, this haze is so severe that multistoried building even become invisible. It was difficult to believe this but the news paper had printed photos of the haze. The report said that since 2006, present haze was the worst of its kind.

To quantify the pureness of air an index known as “Pollution Standard Index” or PSI is often used. The present haze had a PSI of 80. This meant that the air was badly polluted.

This chart tells the the relationship of PSI to to human health.

PSI Value PSI Descriptor
0to 50 Good
51 – 100 Moderate
101 – 200 Unhealthy
201 – 300 Very unhealthy
Above300 Hazardous

I know a bit about pollution. Few years back, when we used to have EURO III vehicle pollution standards in my home city, the air used to be noticeably unhealthy. But since adoption of EURO IV pollution standards the pollution has become much less. However, that has not happened overnight but over many years. Here in Singapore, when air was clean just a day before, how it became unhealthy a day later? And what was the remedy for this? I did some surfing on the net and found out the realities.
On checking Singapore's location in an atlas, we can see that to the north of this tiny island country, we have the Malaysian landmass and to the west, we have the largest island of Indonesian archipelago , Sumatra. The farmers on this island usually light up fires on their farmlands around this time of the year to clear all weeds and dried grasses to make their farmland ready for next sowing season. These farmland fires are lighted up on such an extensive scale that if the wind direction is right, the smoke can easily spread across Singapore or even Malaysia. This meant that the smoke outside had come from Indonesia. In my young days, it was a common belief in India that anything made in “foreign” is of much superior quality than India made stuff. Having grown up with that kind of belief, I must frankly admit that I felt little better to note that the smoke was made in foreign and not within Singapore.

Even for the persons who are in the pink of health this haze becomes increasingly irritating. For babies, aged ones and for people having respiratory or cardiac problems, this haze can become a life threatening situation. When Singapore Government, known for its insistence about having each everything as perfect as possible, is unable to do anything effective o solve this menace, except for raising objections with Indonesian Government, what an individual can really do but suffer. All I can do is to close the windows and let air conditioners run as stale inside air is many times preferable that the outside so called fresh air. News paper says that haze would continue for 3 more days. So no more morning walks for me and must visit that sweaty smelling gymnasium and do my daily exercise on a trade mill.

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