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Hazardous haze

IN JUNE, Singapore was engulfed by dense haze with the highest Pollution Standards Index (PSI) reading since 1997. This haze, according to reports, was caused by illegal burning of forests and the traditional slash-and-burn methods used by farmers in Indonesia to clear the land for cultivation.

For almost everyone in Singapore, the haze was a dominant topic of conversation, with many quarters expressing indignation and condemnation of the cause of the haze. Questions were asked – how could this be allowed to happen again? Couldn’t the authorities do something to prevent it?

This was a trying period, but nonetheless, certain bright spots emerged. Some Singaporeans, on their own initiative, started to distribute masks to workers and the poor who were exposed to the elements. A small group of Christians went to the places frequented by foreign workers to distribute masks and water.

At the same time, they tried to get churches to open up their premises as temporary sanctuaries for those who needed shelter from the haze. While the churches were not able to accede to the requests due to various reasons, this initiative took place just before the Singapore government announced measures to subsidise treatment to those in need of medical care, and made masks available to the poor as well.

As I write this reflection, the PSI reading has dropped to a healthier level – a result of a change in wind direction and a few heavy downpours. However, there are still some hot-spots in Sumatra, and with the dry season in July, fire can easily be re-ignited that could bring back the haze.

How do we as Christians respond to what is becoming a regular environmental hazard?

Firstly, as stewards of God’s creation, we should care for the world and speak against irresponsible destruction of natural resources. In that sense, we should not support nor should we condone companies that use destructive methods to save money and increase profit margins, at the expense of causing greater damage to the environment, killing off wild animals and inflicting harm to human health.

Secondly, instead of over-relying on the slash-and-burn method, practical assistance could be provided through inter- government cooperation, Non-Governmental Organisations, corporations and institutions to develop practical alternatives that are safer and more environmentally acceptable for farmers to clear and cultivate their land.

Thirdly, as believers of persistent human sin, the perennial presence of haze is a warning against supporting any plan to build a nuclear power station in the region.

The haze is a relatively “simple” problem compared to the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear power station leak or meltdown. No mask or even staying indoors will be adequate protection against radiation poisoning.

Fourthly, following the examples of small groups of volunteers who went out to distribute masks, food and water, and who sought to find shelter for those in need of refuge, our church should have in place plans which can be easily activated to get more Christians involved in providing emergency assistance and sanctuary for people in need.

For now, let us pray for good sense to prevail, and that there will be stronger political will to find a sustainable solution to this trans-national problem, one that can protect the natural environment, provide for the welfare of farmers and the overall well-being of the people of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

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The Rev Dr Daniel Koh Kah Soon, a Methodist minister, is a full-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College. He is active in Christian social outreach, and is concerned about how we may bring our faith to bear on the social issues and challenges of our time.