Do you suffer from asthma and find yourself particularly susceptible to pollutants in the air?
Air is all around us and constitutes an ‘implicit condition of existence’ for us humans (Sloterdikj, 2009: 32) because of our reliance on it. The flows of air is invisible and hence not thought about by many. When such flows pertain to polluted air, however, a series of concerns surfaces. This post explores the topic through the horizontal movement of polluted air and scratches upon its biopolitical and geopolitical aspects.
The horizontal movement of polluted air has typically subjected less urbanised areas, downwind of large industrialised formations, victims of polluted air produced from the urban activities (Graham, 2015). Less often, cities like Singapore, downwind of rural areas falls victim to the extreme haze brought about by the Sumatran forest fires in Indonesia during certain periods of the year (see interactive).
The transboundary haze problem has plagued Singapore since the 1970s (Straits Times, 2/10/2015), at times rendered a security threat to the urban milieu when it gets too serious – highlighting the biopolitical and geopolitical aspects of air (Adey, 2013).
Fig 1: Haze advisory chart (source: NEA, 2017)
Singapore experienced its worst haze episode in 2015 with the PSI exceeding the hazardous mark (Fig 1) – prompting the government to close all primary and secondary schools for a day, and roll out measures catering to the more vulnerable groups (Fig 1) (Straits Times, 2/10/2015). This highlights the pervasive nature of air and how its flow across boundaries affects not just citizens per se, but that its impacts are felt differently by different groups of people (Graham, 2015).
Beyond local complications, the problem of transboundary haze at the regional scale proves difficult to address as well, despite the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in place (which Indonesia has been criticised for dragging its feet on its ratification – being the final member country to ratify it in 2014) because of sovereignty concerns (CNA, 11/8/2016).
“Don’t assume that just because we have something here, we can just bulldoze (through) anything… That’s still a foreign country and we have to deal with them and we must respect our neighbour’s sovereignty.”
Mr Wan Junaidi, 2016
Geopolitical tensions also arise and mitigation efforts hampered when the same issue is viewed in different regard by different countries – case-in-point, when Indonesia Vice-President chastised other countries for complaining about the haze.
“For 11 months, they enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us. They have suffered because of the haze for one month and they get upset.”
Mr Jusuf Kalla, 2015
ASEAN is aiming for a haze-free region by 2020 but I wonder if that is overly ambitious, given the continued occurrence of the transboundary haze. Indeed, the flows of air (in this case, polluted air) does bring to discussion the often transboundary nature of it, complicating itself with geopolitical considerations.
Adey, P. (2013) ‘Air/ Atmospheres of the Megacity’, Theory Culture & Society, 30, 7/8, 291-308
Graham, S. (2015) ‘Life support: The political ecology of urban air’, City, 19:2-3, 192-215.
Sloterdijk, P. (2009) Terror from the Air; translated by Amy Patton and Steve Corcoran, Los Angeles: Semiotexte