Breathing More Easily For Now

BreathingMore Easily For Now

9 December 2006

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South East Asia — The monsoon rains have come, clearing the haze that hasuntil recently blanketed much of the Southeast Asian region. The result ofuncontrolled burning associated with ‘slash and burn’ cultivation predominantlyin Sumatra and Kalimantan and exasperated by urban and industrial pollution, thehaze seems now to be an almost yearly dry-season occurrence. It was evident thisyear from early July to end August, and then from late September to end October.In October, Air Pollution Index (API) readings of over 100 (regarded as ‘unhealthy’)were recorded in East and West Malaysia and similar Pollutant Standards Index(PSI) levels were recorded in Singapore. Southern Thailand and Brunei alsoreported haze problems, while conditions in parts of Indonesia nearer the fireswere far worse – visibility levels as low as 100-500 metres were reported. Thehaze forced Indonesians to don facemasks and, in the region, led to the issuingof health warnings for outdoor activities and increases in reported respiratoryproblems, school closures, air traffic and shipping disruptions, touristcancellations and economic losses.

It was reminiscent of 11-12 August 2005 when haze levels reached dangerouslevels (an API reading of over 500) necessitating the declaration of a state ofemergency in Port Klang and Kuala Selangor. The worst of all, however, was theSeptember 1997 haze when Sarawak was placed on a state of emergency footing andlosses in the region in tourism, business and due to extra health costs wereestimated to be of the order of US$9 billion. It was the 1997 haze that promptedregional leaders to intensify cooperation – begun in the aftermath of the 1991and 1994 smoke haze episodes – towards solving the problem.

A whole raft of plans and policies has since been forthcoming. A RegionalHaze Action Plan (RHAP) was adopted in December 1997. The Hanoi Action Plan of1998 required the implementation of the RHAP and, also by 2001, thestrengthening of the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre so as to monitorforest and land fires and provide early warning on trans-boundary haze. In April1999, ASEAN Environment Ministers adopted the policy on ‘zero burning’. However,this policy was ‘not intended to be prescriptive’; actual practice could varyaccording to ground conditions, vegetation, and the resources and policies ofindividual companies; and, it was ‘not applicable to small-holders who may nothave the resources or economies of scale’. In June 2002, ASEAN nations signedthe Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution which called for the developmentand implementation of legislative and other regulatory measures, as well as,programmes and strategies to promote the zero burning policy. (Indonesia has yetto ratify this latter agreement.) During the most recent haze episode in October,both Singapore and Malaysia were critical of Indonesia for the way it was (andwas not) handling the problem. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyonoapologised for the haze, but said that Indonesia simply lacked the resources toeffectively handle the problem. Without giving a time frame, his spokesmanindicated that Indonesia would be prepared to ratify the 2002 Agreement. Aregional meeting suggested by Singapore was held on 13 October at Pekan Baru inKalimantan at which Malaysia mooted the idea of a regional fund to help combatthe disaster. The First Meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial SteeringCommittee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze Pollution – comprising Malaysia, Singapore,Indonesia, Brunei and Thailand -was held on 9 November 2006, endorsing the MSC’sTerms of Reference, Indonesia’s Plan of Action in Dealing withTransboundary Haze Pollution and Indonesia as chair of the MSC for the firsttwo years. This preceded the 10th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the Environment,which was held on 10-11 November also in Cebu, Philippines.

But what has actually been achieved to-date and are there measures in placeon the ground to prevent a return of the haze next year? The statements fromthis latest meeting are less than reassuring.

The MSC is to meet every three months ‘to discuss the matter further’,according to one report, or ‘to oversee concrete actions to address land andforest fires’, according to another. ASEAN environment ministers agreed to setup an early warning system for haze and, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand andBrunei will ‘adopt’ fire-prone regions in Indonesia to assist in tackling theproblem. Need for an early warning system was identified, as the currentdetection of hotspots via satellite was inaccurate, detecting areas that werenot only on fire but also those showing high temperatures. (The early warningsystem and the region adoption programme are on the agenda for future meetings.)Countries affected also agreed to contribute US$50,000 each to set up the AseanHaze Fund, though Indonesia had stated that US$60mil was needed to fight thehaze. (There has been as yet no detailed discussion as to how the haze fund willbe structured and how it will be used.)

Despite the shortcomings, clearly increasing pressure is being placed on theIndonesian government to tackle the problem. Lacking in resources, it is alsostruggling to enforce its regulations and policies. With population pressures,ordinary farmers will necessarily continue to rely on traditional clearing andfarming practices. With the international demand for timber and the potentialfor palm oil and (so-called ecologically friendly) bio-diesel products, locallyand foreign-owned companies will continue to look to Indonesia for expansion oftheir interests. For example, on 23 November newspapers reported a proposedmerger of nine Malaysian companies related to Sime Darby Bhd, Golden HopePlantations Bhd (GHope) and Kumpulan Guthrie Bhd to create a ‘global plantationgiant’ with a combined land-bank of more than 600,000ha – enabling betterstrategizing of ‘investment and expansion plans in Indonesia’. But it would bewrong to point the finger solely at this industry. The problem is much wider andmore complex.

The immediate pressure may be off for the moment, but it is an issue thatmust be faced, providing challenges and opportunities for intra-ASEAN relations.

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