A TWILIGHT grey hung over Singapore island for most of theday on Wednesday. The sun never showed, despite the thin cloud cover. Sensitivenoses detected an acridity in the air. People with short memories can get bymuttering about those forest fires in Indonesia – again. But those for whom the1997 occurrence – the mother of all haze seasons in South-east Asia – was apublic-health hazard and a socio-economic disrupter rolled into one, will bewondering how bad this episode can become. Television pictures of Kuala Lumpur’sdowntown features like the Petronas Twin Towers, poking ghost-like through themuck, were not reassuring for Singaporeans. If the Klang Valley just a gust ofwind away could look like 1997 in Singapore, they would reason that things couldalso get bad here. The skies were clearer yesterday, but the NationalEnvironment Agency took the precaution of saying a change in wind direction inthe next few days will have Singapore in the path of smoke from raging ! forest fires in Sumatra. The haze is no avenging freak of nature, likecyclones and volcanic eruptions, but for Singaporeans it is as bad as it canget.
The economic cost of the 1997 pollution to South-east Asia was not small.Air traffic disruptions, cancelled tourist bookings, crop damage and loss ofmanhours through absenteeism and illness brought losses of US$10 billion ($17.5billion). Singapore bore a share of the losses, not to mention the incidence ofrespiratory ailments among older people and young children. According to theUnited Nations Environment Programme, 20 million people in the region wereexposed to harmful pollutants. It was estimated that burning underground peatbogs in Indonesia discharged more carbon dioxide than that emitted by all thepower stations and cars in Western Europe in one year. It is possible theconclusion here was off, but the empirical picture presented was consistent withhow the world saw South-east Asia in 1997: The place was to be avoided.
What is depressing is how little the pathology of the problem has changedin the intervening years. Indonesia, as the primary source of forest firesthrough wanton clearing, did well to rewrite forestry laws and bring closercoordination between local-area and provincial authorities with oversight of theimportant sector. The agencies have reported (with figures given) thatplantation companies had been prosecuted for illegal clearing. A number of themhad had their licences revoked. But contrast this progress with the annualpersistent incidence of forest fires – like those raging now in Kalimantan andSumatra – and a contradiction cannot be reconciled. Have a lot more primaryforests been parcelled out for logging, thus adding to the dimensions of theactivity? If not, weak enforcement and its corollary, corruption to circumventthe law, have to be suspected. It is reasonable to ask if the real problem is avicious conjoint of liberal forest cutting and non-existent polic! ing. The Asian Development Bank reported in a 1997 study that one weaknesshampering Indonesian handling of the matter was a lack of political will. Aseanas a bloc should have better success in combating the pollution, but the recordhas been disappointing. Environment ministers have agreed on a number of actionplans to monitor land clearing and harmonise responses to fires. The latestdocument drawn up in 2002 demands that offending countries act quickly so as tominimise the effects of trans-boundary pollution. But the haze makes its preciseseasonal appearance.