I Work for the Environment. Watching the World Burn Is the New Normal.

In Opinion
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You don’t have to be an environmentalist to know we are in a self-destructive mess.

It was the transboundary haze season in July last year. 

It started with a phone call with Zainuddin, a WWF field officer whom I communicated with daily to help report live coverage and updates from Pekanbaru – a big city in Sumatra, Indonesia where forest fires happen every year. 

“Do you know what’s the scariest thing about the fires?” 

I paused on the line, being extra cautious and afraid of giving an insensitive answer. “Because they are difficult to put out?”

“Yes, but it is also the smoke from fires that release toxic air pollutants like carbon monoxide. It caused one of our firefighters helping to put out the fires to collapse due to lack of oxygen.”

He sounded exasperated – but never defeated. 

At 27 years old, I didn’t spend my younger days getting frustrated at the incredulous amount of single-use plastics used in Singapore. Neither did I spend them protecting helpless wildlife. In short, I only became more aware about protecting the environment in recent years.

But after hearing first-hand stories from victims of the fires as told by Zainuddin, I realised it is no longer just about protecting the environment. It is about defending the helpless. It is about protecting people, homes, lives. 

As a father and friend to the locals, WWF’s Zainuddin (above) works on the ground to ensure the villagers are safe and equipped with skills and equipment to mitigate forest fires in Sumatra.
©WWF-Indonesia

As my heart breaks for families who have lost their homes and loved ones to forest fires, it was even more painful to imagine the full impact of damage to their livelihoods made worse by the climate catastrophe.

WATCHING THE PATTERN: OUTBREAK OF FIRES IS NOT NORMAL

I was relieved when 2019 came to a close. Increased rainfall had provided much-needed relief to the burning season in this region. 

Now, history is repeating itself.

So here we are – at the start of 2020 – with the Australian bushfires burning more land than the Brazilian, Amazon and Californian fires combined. To put that into context, just one mega-blaze in Australia was about seven times the size of Singapore. 

As I am writing this, more than one billion animals may eventually be killed by the fires that have burnt 8.4 million hectares across the country.  

In an interview with National Geographic, photojournalist Matthew Abbott (who took this widely-circulated photo) shared that he spotted the frightened kangaroo heading towards the burning building.

This is a survival story of wildlife – and the poor – who had nowhere to go.  

Amidst the onslaught of global attention on Australia, I couldn’t help but notice an unmistakable pattern in the fires.

Maybe it was the mass evacuation of communities in New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, deemed as one of the largest emergency movements in Australia. I thought about when my colleagues in Pekanbaru, Sumatra, made the first-ever decision to evacuate in August 2019. 50 of those colleagues and their family members, including women, children and the pregnant, had to be relocated to Bukit Tinggi in West Sumatra.

Maybe it was the blood-red skies that reached picturesque countries like New Zealand. The minute I saw it on the news, it threw me back to the first time Zainuddin sent me a WhatsApp video on the apocalyptic-looking skies at his hometown in Jambi, Sumatra. A phenomenon caused by smoke and haze from wildfires that rose into the upper atmosphere, it sure did look like hell on earth.

A screenshot of a 30-second video clip of the red skies which Zainuddin sent on 21 September 2019.

Maybe it was the communities choking from the thickened smoke that blanketed the region.

Maybe it was the fact that air travel has become significantly dangerous. 

Maybe it was the volunteer firefighters who had risked their lives to save their families and communities. At least 23 people – including several volunteer firefighters – have died across NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

Thousands of homes and buildings have been destroyed. In the midst of the chaos and fires, the full extent of damage will remain unknown.
© Jeremy Piper Photography / Newspix / WWF-Australia

Maybe it was the glaring fact that the impact on wildlife has been unimaginable. More than 50% of Kangaroo Island’s koala population has perished. As photos of people – both civilians and volunteer firefighters – scurrying away with koalas in their hands flood social media feeds, I think about a poor tapir that was stuck at one of our community’s plantations in Sumatra. It was trying to escape the forest fire to safety. 

A koala sat on a burnt tree at Kangaroo Island, South Australia after recent bushfires. People are encouraged to leave bowls of water under trees in koala areas to help them rehydrate.
© Brad Fleet / Newspix / WWF-Australia

No matter the occurrence, it all feels like a familiar dream I can’t wake up from. 

CLIMATE CHANGE REPEATEDLY ADDS SALT TO THE WOUND 

You can choose to not believe in the science of climate change or any environmental work. But can we ignore the deaths of people and mass destruction of homes, property and wildlife? 

According to the United Nations special representative for disaster risk reduction Mami Mizutori, there is a climate crisis disaster happening every week somewhere in the world. 

The science is clear: Rising temperatures and long periods of drought dry out trees and vegetation. The timing of the fires is no coincidence. 2019 was the second hottest year ever, and we have just experienced the hottest decade on record. These create the perfect conditions for uncontrollable fires. 

Australia has been experiencing more frequent intense heatwaves and prolonged dry periods that have created tinderbox conditions. 
© Adam Dederer / WWF-Australia

In Australia, though climate change does not directly cause bushfires, we cannot run away from the fact that it does make them worse.

It seems to me that it is no longer a secret that we are at the start of a new war. In Australia and the rest of the world, the link between climate change and forest fires can no longer be ignored.

Until the day you can find a second planet where human life can exist, there is no way of escaping this calamity unless we act now. 

The fires are far from over. Our colleagues at WWF-Australia are providing immediate assistance to the bushfire crisis and ensuring that there are long-term plans to restore what has been lost. You can help by contributing to the response and recovery efforts here

You can also support WWF-Singapore’s efforts to protect forests around Southeast Asia by helping to fund our work here.


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