In 2015, when Benjamin Tay came back to Singapore after his studies in Australia, he got smacked by the worse transboundary haze event in Southeast Asia.
“The haze was all around Indonesia, Malaysia, and way up to Philippines. It was quite bad.” He shared with me on a phone call.
The haze caused respiratory issues to a hundred of thousand people especially in Indonesia, flights were canceled, and schools in Singapore were closed due to high levels of air pollution. In the cities of Pontianak and Kuching located on the island of Borneo, air pollution was three times worse than in Singapore. In the state of Penang in the north of Malaysia, Perai Pulau was as affected as Singapore even though it is 700 km away from Merlion city.
Benjamin wanted to understand why air pollution could happen at such scale and intensity. The same year, he joined the People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM Haze), an organization founded in response to the 2013 haze crisis, but dormant at the time. As part of a new founding group, he brought the organization back to life and registered it as a charity in Singapore. Benjamin volunteered full-time for PM Haze and finally became its Executive Director. Following the smoke from Singapore to Indonesia, Benjamin and his team realized the link between the haze, peatland fires, and palm oil. There is no smoke without fire
When Singapore was facing peaks in air pollution, across the Strait of Karimata on the island of Borneo, Indonesia was on fire. In 2015, Indonesia recorded more than 30 000 fire alerts, of which one third came from peatlands.
Peatlands naturally occur in the waterlogged areas of Indonesia where the wet, anoxic, and acid conditions protect the dead flora from decomposing. Layers of dead vegetation can accumulate over centuries and form peat down to 10 meters deep.