Helping Kalimantan at the heart of the haze

151021 Masks Final

Every year, a haze spreads across South East Asia – at the heart is Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan, where raging forest fires cause the hazardous air pollution. Several provinces of Kalimantan often experience the direct wrath of the fires, with hundreds of hotspots detected.

In Malaysia and Singapore, people are advised to stay indoors when the haze is bad, avoid exercise and wear N95 masks – high quality protection against particles in the air. But in Kalimantan “a lot of people do not even wear masks here because they are so used to the pollution,” relief worker Jonathan How said.”They’ve been conditioned by the haze for decades and are subjected to serious health problems much worse than in Singapore.”

“We’re suffering, but the people in Kalimantan suffer 10 times more … and social media has been heightening the response. Some people can just choose to be sympathetic, but I chose to act,” said Ms Cheryl Lie, is a programmes manager at the Singapore Management University.

Together with her sister and their friend, secondary school teacher Hafizhah Jamel, 32, they launched the Facebook page called “Let’s Help Kalimantan”, calling for donations of N95 masks.’s Mr Jonathan How subsequently joined their campaign.

The response to their campaign has been overwhelming, and the three women, together with Mr How, have collected more than 26,000 masks so far — far surpassing their original target of 10,000.

A group of private donors even had 10,000 masks delivered in boxes to Ms Hafizhah’s house. Some donors would travel all the way to Ms Cheryl Lie’s workplace during rush-hour to pass boxes of masks, or drop off boxes at the team’s homes, recalled Ms Lie. Others offered help in the form of free lorry services, and staff from NTUC FairPrice and Cold Storage even asked if they needed assistance in sponsorship of boxes er for distribution

The team of five arrived in Kalimantan on Monday. Mr How described seeing “smoky yellow skies” in the region, where PSI pollutant levels have neared 2,000. Any reading over 300 is considered hazardous.

“One lesson we learnt was that haze awareness is key. Though people may politely receive the N95 masks they are given, they will only use them if they truly understand the long-term health impacts of inhaling fine particulates from the haze,” Mr How said.

The team from Singapore visited schools to educate people on the health effects of the haze.  Singaporean photographer Edwin Koo, who also travelled with the team, documented their efforts. He shared with the BBC one experience of teaching a man how to put on a specialised N95 mask.

“When we first arrived at the airport, we gave out masks to the porters too. One of them took the strap [that were supposed to be looped over the head] and wore it on his ears, like a surgical mask. It ended up blocking his eyes and he didn’t realize it was wrongly worn. So I showed him how to put it on correctly. It was then I realised that the mission was not as simple as it seemed.”

Mr Koo also said: “Sometimes we have to cross the line of documentation. In this case, it meant that I had to put my camera down to help people put on masks and explain the hazards of exposing oneself to haze.” Mr Koo has also been actively sharing images from the trip onto his Facebook page. His album titled, Haze Response Kalimantan 2015, features photographs of Kalimantan’s burning peatlands and the daily life of the locals.

Soldiers have been building canals to get water to the fire-hit areas, but the group said the efficiency of the work had yet to be proven

Now back in Singapore, the team are currently exploring new ideas on how to “better inform people about the negative health impact of the haze”. They also want to continue to “encourage people to use the correct masks for their protection”.

“We want to meet as many like-minded individuals and organisations as possible, to explore collaboration on longer-term solutions to the haze,” he said.

“The regional pollution is a global responsibility, not just of the Indonesian government.”




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