2013 will be remembered as a year of disasters in Southeast Asia. Oil spills, dengue outbreaks, earthquakes, coral reef destruction, bus crashes, hail storms, and massive floods devastated many towns in the region. But the two biggest disasters of the year are the transboundary haze pollution which covered the skies of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia; and supertyphoon Haiyan (Yolanda) which hit the central part of the Philippines.
Forest fires in Sumatra, Indonesia caused a thick blanket of smog to descend on Singapore and many parts of Malaysia last June. While it is true that forest fire is a recurring problem in the region, this year’s transboundary haze was worse than in previous years. It was bigger, blacker, thicker, and harder to clear. It caused air pollution indexes to soar to record levels in both Singapore and Malaysia.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologized to Singapore and Malaysia for Indonesia’s failure to prevent the burning of forests in Sumatra which caused the haze in the region.
Naturally, the haze gravely affected the lives of many Singaporeans and Malaysians. In Singapore, the wearing of face masks as protection against the haze has become the new normal in the prosperous city state. N5 face masks have become ridiculously expensive and many people have had to wait in line for several hours just to buy them. Workers have been advised to go home, travel has been restricted, and the young and old have remained indoors. Dozens of schools in south Malaysia also suspended operations.
Numerous apps and online portals were developed to help citizens monitor the haze situation, as well as to track the location of reliable haze masks, clinics, and shelters.
As expected, media reports focused on the impact of the haze in Singapore and other urban areas of Malaysia. Unfortunately, there was scant reporting on the situation of Indonesian citizens who have tremendously suffered from the impact of both the haze and forest fires. Riau, located west of Indonesia, is considered the ‘ground zero’ of the haze disaster.
Aside from writing about their haze experience, many netizens also highlighted the need to address the root of the haze problem. In particular, they wanted palm plantation companies to be made accountable for the burning of forests. They also pressed for greater protection of the environment.
After the haze subsided in the region, a series of disasters struck the Philippines. A strong earthquake destroyed many buildings in the Philippine provinces of Bohol and Cebu on October. A few weeks later, a super typhoon wrought destruction in the nearby provinces of Samar and Leyte.
Haiyan was the world’s strongest storm of the year. It was also the fourth strongest to make landfall in world history. Situated in the typhoon belt of the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines gets battered by more than a dozen storms every year. But Haiyan was different. It proved to be a real super typhoon when it caused a tsunami-like storm surge that instantly killed thousands. As of this writing, more than 6,000 have died but the fatalities could be higher as relief workers continue to clean the debris in many villages.
The areas hit by Haiyan are among the poorest provinces in the Philippines. In fact, Eastern Visayas is the third poorest region in the country.
Many survivors have complained that aid was not properly and quickly delivered to communities. Many dead bodies were still seen lying in the streets, refugees had been begging for food, and rescue efforts have not yet reached the other remote islands of typhoon-ravaged provinces a week after the disaster.
After the partial restoration of telecommunication signals in some areas, some survivors and relief workers were able to connect online and they were able to narrate their ordeal during the storm; and also about how they coped for several days without power, food, and shelter. These were heartbreaking and powerful stories of loss and survival.
Meanwhile, Filipinos have been inspired by the global outpouring of aid and sympathy for the typhoon victims.
As 2013 draws to a close, it’s important to remember the painful lessons from Southeast Asia’s experience with the haze and Haiyan. The haze will return once more in 2014 if no regional effort is made to prevent forest fires in Sumatra. In the case of the Philippines, rehabilitation in the typhoon-hit provinces must be aggressively pursued or else the humanitarian crisis will further prolong the suffering of the typhoon victims.