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Takes more than cloud seeding to fight haze
Published on: Saturday, April 09, 2016

By Datuk Madius Tangau
In 2015, the haze crisis in Malaysia was deemed the worst haze crisis faced in national history.

This crisis resulted in the closing of schools, health deterioration among citizens such as the increase in respiratory diseases as well as eye, nose and throat irritation. During this haze crisis, we were all advised to stay indoors to reduce our exposure to the negative impacts of this haze.

It worries me that recently this haze crisis has resurfaced and is getting worse in my birth state, forcing 77 schools in southwestern Sabah to be closed as a result of haze. While it is easy to blame El Nino for bringing an extraordinarily dry and hot season to our region as well as blaming it on transboundary haze, we also play a role in aggravating the situation.

We must be aware that this recent haze crisis is mainly a local contribution, caused by the peat fires following slash-and-burn in the Binsuluk Forest Reserve in Beaufort and Kota Klias.

Slash-and-burn is perhaps the easiest and cheapest way to clear the land. However, it is also the least sustainable method for land clearing. Peat fires is difficult to stop, and they can cause up to 90pc of the haze, releasing three to six times more haze particulate matter than fires on other types of soil.

Seeding clouds on hazy days One of the methods that can be used to help ease down the haze issue is through cloud seeding which is typically a method to speed up the natural process of rain formation. In Malaysia, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) through a joint effort between Malaysian Meteorological Department and The Defence Ministry will carry out this cloud seeding exercise when deemed necessary. The standard operating procedure of having these operations carried out is when the air pollution index or API reading exceeds 100 (>100 API) continuously for 72 hours, exceeds 200 (>200 API) continuously for 48 hours, exceeds 300 (>300 API) continuously for 24 hours, or immediately if API reading exceeds 400 (>400 API).

To ensure that the cloud seeding process is successful, the conditions must be favourable, whereby only towering cumulus clouds or rain bearing clouds that are of vertical height from the base of the clouds between 10,000 to 20,000 feet are selected for cloud seeding. Around 1600 litres of salt solution are sprayed onto the selected rain bearing clouds to induce rain. A C13OH Hercules military air craft can accommodate up to four (4) tanks of salt solution for each cloud seeding operation. If the right conditions are met in carrying out this procedure, the formation of rain can be achieved between 15 to 30 minutes. However, the effect of cloud seeding may further cause continuous rain bearing clouds development 1 – 2 hours after the seeding operation if there is adequate moisture in the atmosphere.

Not all clouds have silver linings Regardless of the ability of cloud seeding to form rain, we can’t entirely depend on cloud-seeding to reduce haze as it is difficult to find rain bearing clouds during the dry period, when haze usually occurs. All efforts in cloud-seeding cannot guarantee rain, because at the end of the day because there are things simply beyond our control.

Other methods that have been used to fight haze include water-bombing which is the use of large volumes of water to put out forest fires. Water bombing helps to prevent uncontrollable spread of forest fires by interrupting the forest fires at an earlier stage. This will also give ground crew more time to get to the scene and contain the fire.

However, this method has its limitation whereby it may not always be suitable during drought season.

Earlier this month, firemen resorted to aerial water bombings to end the three-day fight against a raging peat fire at the Binsuluk forest reserve in Beaufort.

Preventing forest fires As the saying goes prevention is better than cure, it is always better to curb haze from occurring than mitigating it later.

In most cases, slash-and-burn occurs when farmers find their previous plot of lands no longer fertile for plantations.

Nutrient levels in the soil of tropical rainforests are known to be typically low. Slashing-and-burning forests provide a short-term solution as the heating of soil through fires will release substantial amounts of nutrients into the soil.

The soil will carry more nutrients for plantations in the short term but these nutrients will eventually deplete, and the farmers would have to continuously find newer lands to slash-and-burn. This is a vicious cycle, and more sustainable approaches are required to maintain nutrient levels in the soil.

Last October, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Abdul Razak relayed a tube well construction idea to the Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Bogor to discuss on the haze issue and cooperation in the oil palm industry.

Basically, a tube well can be used to prevent peat fires and subsequently the haze. The tube well is a type of water bored into an underground aquifer at peat areas. Underground water pressure, facilitated by an electrical pump will be used to push the water to the surface to keep the soil surface moist.

An ongoing study by Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) suggested the conversion of biomass into biofuel to curb the slash-and-burn activities for land clearing purposes could be the long awaited solution to the Southeast Asia transboundary haze problem. “Paid not to burn,” the tagline for this solution implied that farmers can get extra income by selling the currently unwanted agroforestry waste to biorefinery plant. Much like the tube well concept, the haze study suggested for a retention pond to be constructed at suitable location where floodwater can be diverted during the wet season into the retention pond for usage during the dry season in order to maintain a constant high ground water level.

Practising sustainable agriculture: a long term solution Despite the negative impacts that arise from plantation agriculture, it is important to note that agriculture is a major economic source of the country and would be unreasonable to abolish agricultural activities completely.

Therefore, sustainable agriculture techniques should be improvised as a long term solution to reduce the disastrous effects imposed from conventional agricultural practices such as land clearing by slash-and-burn.

One of these techniques is intercropping, where multiple crops are grown on the same land at the same time.

This method is beneficial in the sense that the crops can obtain water from different soil depths and nutrients, as well as controlling weeds and the mutual advantage of daunting off pests by the scent of one of the crops.

Another method showing similar benefits of intercropping is crop rotation, whereby multiple crops are grown sequentially.

Additionally, agroforestry is also a method of sustainable agriculture which involves growing multiple crops on the same land of agriculture, with multi-layered ecosystems of trees and shrubs. These trees help to provide shade whereas the roots help to draw up nutrients from the depths of the soil for the crops to make use of, reducing the use of fertilizers and herbicides due to the ecological roles of the trees and shrubs planted. Thus, the sustainable agriculture techniques above should be encouraged among farmers as it provides agricultural benefits of similar output but with less negative impacts to the environment.

Looking beyond haze Haze is not the only hazard resulting from the clearance of land through slash-and-burn.

Apart from haze, the negative impacts arising from land clearing are rampant. The exploitation of tropical rainforests to develop new lands for agriculture causes habitat destruction of several species including species unique to Malaysia.

This leads to the destruction of the natural ecosystem and causes ecological imbalance.

We must be vigilant and responsible. We must work together as the haze phenomenon is adversely impacting the health of the people, economic livelihood, and the environment. Concerted effort by all parties is needed to reduce our carbon footprint. We should not allow haze to be an annual national phenomenon and we must change our mindset.

As what Albert Einstein once said, “Today’s problems cannot be solved if we still think the way we thought when we created them”.

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