Indonesian smoke is choking Asia

  Indonesia: Indonesiansmoke is choking Asia

30 August 2002

Governments have not yetfigured out how to cooperate

SINGAPORE A plan recentlyunveiled by the Singapore government promises to give this prosperousisland-state a green future, including at least 310 days of clean air per yearby 2012.

But there is a catch.Singapore cannot control the widespread burning of forests and scrub to clearland in neighboring Indonesia, a practice that at this time of year sends cloudsof wind-borne smoke and pollutants, known euphemistically as haze, sweepingacross large swathes of Southeast Asia.

Raging forest fires inIndonesia, fuelled by an unusually long dry spell that was intensified by the ElNiño weather phenomenon, blanketed Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and even partsof Thailand and the Philippines in 1997 and 1998. It cost an estimated $9billion in damage to public health from respiratory and other illnesses and intourism, transport and agricultural losses.

In this year’s dry season,the Indonesian fires, compounded by the return of El Niño, have again causedhaze to drift over Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei for more than a month, raisingfears of a repeat of the disastrous 1997-98 pollution that caused seriousstrains in relations between Indonesia and other members of ASEAN, theAssociation of South East Asian Nations.

Singapore’s NationalEnvironment Agency reported this week that satellite photographs showed morethan 800 hot spots, where fires were burning on Borneo. The island, one of theworld’s largest, is shared by the Indonesian region of Kalimantan, Brunei andthe Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah.

Air quality in parts ofKalimantan hit record lows Thursday as fires continued to belch out thick smoke,the Associated Press reported from Jakarta. The dense smoke has closed oneairport in the area for more than a week while thousands of people, many of themchildren, have been treated for respiratory difficulties.

Although Indonesia itselfis bearing the brunt of the smoke, Malaysian officials said that Deputy PrimeMinister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was expected to discuss the issue of cross-borderpollution with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri when they met on thesidelines of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg nextweek.

The Malaysian science,technology and environment minister, Law Hieng Ding said that Malaysia will beseeking support from Singapore and Brunei in urging Indonesia to take firmaction to prevent a major outbreak of fires.

“Without anagreed-upon approach by all players to solve the underlying causes of fires,international relations will continue to be strained as smoke chokes theregion,” said Grahame Applegate, a researcher at the Center forInternational Forestry Research at Bogor, Indonesia.

Indeed, some officials andanalysts believe that the problem of air and water pollution and other forms ofenvironmental damage generated in one country and spreading to others isbecoming so extensive in Asia and elsewhere that it will be a key forceimpelling governments, industries and non-government organizations to work moreclosely together to combat the problem.

In June, ASEAN environmentministers signed what they said was the first regional arrangement in the worldthat binds a group of contiguous states to cooperate in tackling land and forestfires, and the resultant cross-border haze pollution.

But the agreement willonly enter into force after six of the ten ASEAN member states have ratified oracceded to it, which has not happened yet.

The United NationsEnvironment Program warned recently that the regional and global impacts of hazegenerated in Asia from rapid industrialization and urbanization, bad land usepractices, and deforestation are set to get worse over the next 30 years as theregion’s population rises to an estimated 5 billion people.

A panel of scientists forthe environment program reported earlier this month that a blanket of pollutionup to three kilometers (1.5 miles) deep stretched across South Asia, modifyingweather patterns in a way that was already causing serious damage to humanhealth and agriculture, triggering drought in some parts of the region andfloods in others.

South Asia includesAfghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldive Islands, Nepal, Pakistan andSri Lanka.

The executive director ofthe environment program, Klaus Toepfer, said that the South Asian haze was theresult of dramatic increases in the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles,industries and power stations, as well as smoke from forest fires, the burningof agricultural wastes, and millions of inefficient cookers using wood, cow dungand other biofuels.

“More research isneeded, but these initial findings clearly indicate that this growing cocktailof soot, particles, aerosols and other pollutants is becoming a majorenvironmental hazard for Asia,” he said. “There are also globalimplications, not least because a pollution parcel like this, which stretchesthree kilometers high, can travel half way round the globe in a week.”

Officials at the UN’senvironment program said that while the Asian “brown haze” studyfocused on South Asia, the problem is comparable, if not more severe, inSoutheast and Northeast Asia, including China.

In March, the worst duststorm in a decade whipped up in China’s arid north affected to neighboringRussia and Korea. The flying sand caused dozens of flight cancellations andclosed primary schools in South Korea, while in Russia’s Pacific port ofVladivostock the storm shrouded the city in clouds of sand and yellow rain.

Scientists say thatChina’s dust storms are worsening as the desert, which covers over 27 percent ofthe country, spreads as a result of illegal logging and over-grazing on marginalland.

China’s coal-burning powerplants and factories emit some 40 million tons per year of sulfur oxides, themost in the world. Some of this pollution is carried by prevailing winds anddeposited on Japan in the form of acid rain that damages crops and forests.Japanese officials have expressed repeated concern about such airbornepollution.

Wind-borne pollution fromChina and neighboring countries is even reaching North America, according toscientific studies published in the United States in April.

Source: InternationalHerald Tribune, by Michael Richardson


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