20150720 Selamat Hari Raya – and clean air.

Monday, 20 July, 2015 – 03:33

We don’t have to argue for or against the macro effects of global warming. Just look out of the window, or count the number of showers you need each day.

As if proof were needed: three days of a long weekend and Kuala Lumpur is almost free of pollution and the temperature has dropped by two degrees.

No traffic, vastly reduced residential population and an office population of near-zero has meant that air-con units have not pumped hot, steamy air into the environment and that which has been produced has been able to escape because the air is clear.

Sure, there’s been rain – but because the humidity from that has also been able to escape, it has had a cooling effect and humidity (on a “how sticky is my skin?” test which I accept is not scientific) has not increased.

When I moved to Kuala Lumpur more than a decade ago, the midnight temperature displayed in a pole near my city centre apartment was 24 degrees. Now the temperature in my apartment at 7 am is almost always 33. This morning, it was 31.

What has happened to cause the general increase in temperature and why was today less pronounced?

It’s not rocket science : when I arrived here, KL was a green city – it had actual jungle in the city centre with monkeys and various jungle birds. Now it’s a concrete jungle. There are few trees, almost all green spaces have been built on, houses with gardens have been replaced by tower blocks surrounded by tarmac. Ever taller buildings crowd the skyline and construction is a constant, not unlike Hong Kong in the 1980s.

But Hong Kong is different to KL: Hong Kong is an island and it has several large parks and a massive green lung, The Peak and its surrounding park, covering the entire centre of the city / island pulls heat and pollution out of the city (or did, until the Guandong industrial region started blowing so much pollution south that its function was overwhelmed). Kuala Lumpur is in a basin, exactly the opposite topography of Hong Kong. Like London, it is surrounded by hills and pollution does not blow away, it can only rise. However, KL is even worse than London in that Kuala Lumpur does not have a large watercourse that provides a channel for at least some wind through the city.

Pollution from traffic, which the KL authorities are trying to combat by a substantial improvement to public transport and the development of overhead walkways, accumulates in the bowl. Worse, the buildings absorb heat which has two effects that combine to increase the city’s temperature. First, they act as a storage heater – they absorb and retain heat during the day and release it back into the atmosphere at night. Secondly, the heat transmits through the buildings – double / insulated walls are an anathema to Malaysian construction companies, as are heat reflecting windows. The result is that homes, shops and offices use ever-increasing air-cooling to control the ever more oppressive environment and that creates hot air that increases the exterior air temperature. That hot air, from all causes, cannot escape because of the pollution.

It’s amazing how fast the city recovers. When Guandong closes for Chinese New Year, Hong Kong’s air clears within two or three days and stays clear until the factories fire up again. In Kuala Lumpur, for three days over the Hari Raya holiday, the roads that are usually choked with traffic have, from time to time, been entirely empty with literally no visible traffic on major thoroughfares. The reduction in construction over that period (it did not actually stop) has reduced dust levels. The constant dry mouth and respiratory tightness that characterises city living have gone. And when a surface is dusted, it remains free of dust for at least a few hours, instead of the usual few minutes before a light film of grey powder appears on black, for example.

The focus of campaigners is on large scale projects. But the past three days in Kuala Lumpur has, as it does on every long holiday, proved that big projects like the Kyoto Protocol grab headlines but they don’t grab the imagination of ordinary people.

We, the poor souls who live with the sticky grime that attaches itself to the innards of all electronic devices until they suffocate and die in a life that is far shorter than in cooler, cleaner climates, must realise – there are economic benefits to each of us contributing to a cleaner way of life, and aside from that we will also be more comfortable. And healthier. Respiratory illness is a fact of life for many who live and work in cities – but they don’t realise that much of the improvement is in their own hands.

As KL returns to partially functional today and fully functional tomorrow, I will be back to assessing the comfort of my days with reference to the number of showers I need. Yesterday was two, one in the morning and one at night. A week ago, when Town was full, it was six or seven. Over the long weekend, I could walk and not find my clothes sodden literally before I had reached the end of my road. Such comfort has become abnormal.

KL is doing the right thing with public transport and with an increasing network of walkways to separate pedestrians from traffic, as are so successful in Hong Kong’s Central, but KL needs to contain construction: the city does not need more office blocks and apartments, many of which are vacant anyway. It needs to retain green spaces. And it needs to change building standards so that all new construction actively militates against heat retention and transfer. Measures could be taken to harness and use the heat generated, or the air currents it creates. KL needs to actively discourage the use of private vehicles in the City centre. Taxis – many of which already run on natural gas, should be replaced with electric buggies. Malaysians don’t walk, they drive or get in a taxi for journeys of even 400 – 500 metres. Therefore taxi flag fall charges need to rise dramatically, but per KM charges after the first 2KM for the next 3KM should fall, relative to current charges, to compensate. The planned Pudu Jail development should be aborted and the site turned into a city park similar to that at KLCC, without the lake but with cycle and walking trails (separating the two),

City centre mega projects should be put on hold until new building standards can be developed, using a variety of ecological techniques so that they do not further contribute to the environmental hazards that are developing and may, with proper design, reverse some of the problems.

It’s not hard, it just takes political will – and for ordinary people to do their bit. Everyone’s contribution helps. Those who choose to sit in a traffic jam on Jalan Ampang for more than an hour rather than make the journey on the almost empty highway alongside it need to realise that the toll of about USD50 cents is an investment not a cost and the ROI on that investment is being home in ten minutes instead of an hour, being in a far less fractious mood and that, in any case, much of that cost is set off by the saving in petrol.

People have to be confident in the trains – and they should be. In the past five years or so, KL’s commuter trains have improved out of all recognition. They are clean, on time and comfortable. There are now lifts to platforms at many stations. Sure, some interchanges are a pain in the arse (and legs) but switching between Monorail and the two major rail providers is mostly quite easy. Most of the city has, or will shortly have, access to the rail network.

Phase two of the transport management scheme has to be to improve bus services in the suburbs so that people don’t have to get in their cars to go to the station – all too often, once they are in their cars, they just continue straight onto work.

City car parks are already expensive and policing illegal parking is an imperative. That will deter many who drive into town.

KL isn’t really bad yet, but it’s showing signs of heading in that direction and a three day holiday shows the significant difference that can be made. Everyone, from politicians to shop workers can make a difference, one act at a time.

Use temperature controlled Air Con set to 27 degrees, use a dehumidifier instead of air con (and use the water it generates for cleaning floors, etc), walk distances of less than 1KM – it’s safe and convenient with the walkways – and use public transport instead of a car if you can. Use heavy curtains to prevent heat transfer into rooms from the walls that get the afternoon sun.

Don’t block pavements with cars, motorcycles or café tables so that people are not discouraged from walking. There are many small things each of us can do and all of us benefit.

We just need to think. And to tell the authorities what we want, even when that flies in the face of short term commercial interests.

© 2015 Nigel Morris-Cotterill
All rights reserved.

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