We need to talk about haze
Despite suffering periodic transboundary haze episodes for three decades, Malaysians are generally unaware of the physical and mental health effects of haze and feel helpless about finding solutions. Improved government communication can reduce the negative impacts of haze, empower haze-free consumer behaviour, and enhance policies that would increase public confidence in the government’s role in addressing the problem.
Transboundary “haze” pollution has been a problem in Southeast Asia since the 1980s. Largely caused by smouldering fires in peat swamp forests in Indonesia and Malaysia disturbed for agriculture, haze can affect up to eight countries in the region.
Haze has serious effects on health and social and economic life around Southeast Asia. Recent estimates indicate that the 2015 haze caused 40,000 to 100,000 excess deaths.
The problem persists despite many years of attention from policymakers, both at the national level and via collaborative mitigation efforts spearheaded by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Policy mismatch in Selangor, Malaysia
In February 2020, the government of Selangor, Malaysia’s most industrialised state, proposed to de-gazette (revoke legal protections for) 931 hectares of peatlands in the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR). This reserve is one of two remaining peat forests in southern Selangor, underlain by an 8,000-year-old layer of peat.
Using the excuse of preventing future forest fires in the allegedly degraded peat, the Selangor government planned to develop a mix of housing, commercial and industrial projects in place of the carbon-rich forest.
This proposal baffled the public. Aside from ecosystem services, the forest provides for the cultural and welfare needs of five indigenous villages. In addition, the state government had already invested RM2.2 million in fire prevention infrastructure in the forest reserve, in line with the National Action Plan for Peatlands and the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy 2006-2020.
More than 45,000 public objections were submitted to the government. Civil society groups subsequently launched a year-long campaign against the de-gazettement amidst pandemic lockdowns, faced with the intricately linked threats to health and the environment.
Public pressure succeeded. The state government finally pulled the plug on the project in September 2021, after initially approving a partial de-gazettement in May.
Protests against the de-gazettement of Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve
Tapping into public values
The KLNFR incident shows there is public awareness related to fire and haze prevention and forest protection, at least within activist groups.
More research is needed into how the general public relates to the haze. Research of this kind can underpin improved policy design and effectiveness by predicting likely public opposition and opportunities to create policies that better reflect public interests.
We conducted just such a research project, funded by the Toyota Foundation. Our survey findings suggest a sense of hopelessness among the Malaysian public. 69% of respondents thought the haze situation in Malaysia would be worse in 25 years than it is now.
Other notable findings related to the physical and mental health effects of haze. 72% agreed or strongly agreed that several consecutive days of haze makes them depressed. And only half the respondents understood that performing moderate exercise during haze episodes increases the amount of pollution inhaled, indicating a low haze-health literacy.
Survey respondents also assigned more responsibility for solving the haze to corporations linked to unsustainable agricultural land use than to themselves as consumers of related products and reported low awareness of existing sustainability certification labels.
In follow-on Focus Group Discussions (FGD), we found few participants who could identify any sustainability labels. These labels set out standards that, among others, incorporate protection for peatlands from fires. Even the home-grown Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) logo was not familiar to the participants.
Examples of sustainability labels related to fires and haze
Lastly, survey respondents and FGD participants believe the Malaysian government has a high level of responsibility for solving the problem. This is an opportunity for both federal and state governments in Malaysia.
We posit that improved public communication on haze can increase confidence in the government’s role towards a haze-free future. In turn, such communication can help people better protect themselves during haze and empower them to make consumer choices that demand stronger accountability from companies whose products are linked to haze fires.
Call to action
The top-level coordinating body on haze in Malaysia is the National Haze and Dry Weather Steering Committee, which consists of various government agencies involved in haze crisis management. Drawing upon key research findings, we propose three steps the committee can take to improve public communication over haze:
- Maintain continuous haze-health literacy campaigns to enable the public to make good health decisions during haze;
- Initiate a public hotline for mental and general health support during haze episodes; and
- Run a year-round public relations campaign to increase awareness on sustainability certification labels and how consumers can personally contribute to resolving haze.
These actions align with our call for improved and consistent communication and engagement between the government and the people over haze. We believe that doing so is vital in ensuring buy-in among the various stakeholders that can contribute to preventing the worst effects of the haze, and over time perhaps in finally solving the haze problem.
Wong Pui Yi is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Economics and Administration, University of Malaya
Helena Varkkey is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, University of Malaya
Matthew Ashfold is an Associate Professor at the School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, University of Nottingham Malaysia
Laura De Pretto is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Social and Health Sciences, Leeds Trinity University
Christopher Ives is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geography, University of Nottingham
Siti Asdiah Masran is a PhD candidate at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, University of Malaya
Prashanth Vasantha Kumar worked as a Research Assistant on this project while based at the School of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, University of Nottingham Malaysia