KUALA LUMPUR – Southeast Asian nations have not yet proved they are up to combatting smog and could be touting a new plan merely as a delaying tactic, an influential Malaysian environmentalist says. Gurmit Singh, executive director of the Centre for Environment, Technology And Development Malaysia, slammed ASEAN governments for being secretive in efforts to avoid a repeat of the smoke pollution that engulfed the region two years ago.
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) unveiled a plan on Tuesday that regional environment ministers said would ensure clear skies ahead of the Southeast Asia Games in Brunei next month, but they gave no details.
“Why don’t they publish the details of the plan? Unless there is a time frame in which to evaluate the plan, how do we say whether it’s working or not?” Singh, who is known in Malaysia as “Mr. Green”, told Reuters in an interview.
The 10-member ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
“The ministers tend to drag their feet. They may be just trying to buy time with this plan.”
The smog-fighting campaign is expected to begin in two weeks and will be piloted in Indonesia’s Riau province, where fires have broken out since May. It includes education, fire-prevention, fire-fighting and surveillance.
If successful, the plan will be implemented in other fire-prone areas in Indonesia, source of most of the region’s dry season forest fires and haze.
Singh, who is also adviser and founder of the Environmental Protection Society Malaysia, said unless the authorities stopped widespread open-burning practices in the region, their plan would not work.
Such practices included the clearing of land for plantations.
“Have they (the authorities) been able to sensitise local officials who issue permits for open-burning and teach farmers to refrain from it?” asked Singh, who is a member of the Malaysian government’s advisory body on the environment.
“You can’t wait for fires to come up and then only put them down. This is the real problem.”
ASEAN governments said this week they had lived up to their promises to enforce the proposed zero-burning policy.
Health-threatening smog blanketed the region for months in 1997 and seriously hurt the region’s tourism industry.
Last month, haze re-emerged in Malaysia and Singapore, raising fears of a return of the smog. However, in recent weeks, rains from the lingering La Nina weather phenomenon have kept the region largely haze-free.
“The dry season could be delayed. Only after September and October can we safely say it won’t happen,” he said, warning against complacency.
Like other environmental groups, Singh condemned the Malaysian government for withholding its closely watched air pollution index (API), saying the move would only fan public suspicion.
Environment Minister Law Hieng Ding has accused foreign news media of using the data to scare away tourists.
“Environmental issues are tied to public confidence. As long as you are not transparent, you are not doing the right thing,” Singh said.