BANGKOK – The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) expressed concern on Friday that fires erupting in Indonesia may cause a repeat of a haze which smothered parts of Southeast Asia in 1997 and 1998. But UNEP’s Asia Pacific Director, Nirmal Andrews, told Reuters he welcomed Indonesia’s response to the forest fires on Sumatra island adding it could avert another regional haze crisis.
“The Indonesian government’s intention to summon logging and plantation company owners and to review their licenses is the kind of tough measure needed to pre-empt another crisis,” he said. “These are early hot spots and strong steps can help check the problem.”
Indonesia said it would publicly name and punish plantation owners guilty of setting fires to clear land in Riau province as the smoke threatened neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.
The country’s Forestry Department said investigators had found a major fire in a palm plantation owned by a Malaysian company and would name and punish guilty companies soon but environmentalists say Indonesia’s laws lacked teeth.
Andrews said about 1,200 fires had been detected in Sumatra and Kalimantan earlier this week with pollution readings over the 300 level on the Pollution Standard Index (PSI), a level considered hazardous to health.
Widespread fires in 1997 in Sumatra and the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, on Borneo island, caused thick smoke to engulf Singapore and parts of Malaysia, causing health problems and damaging the tourist industry.
An early warning system, supported by UNEP and other regional agencies and governments, uses high-resolution satellite imagery to detect specific land holdings where there are hot spots.
It also allows for quick and coordinated mobilisation of fire fighting teams.
Singapore’s air condition worsened to the most polluted levels of the year late on Wednesday when its PSI stood at 65. An air-quality rating of 0-50 is considered good, 51-100 moderate and 101-200 unhealthy.
Environmentalists in Malaysia expect the country to feel the effects of the haze if the fires persist.