SOUTHEAST Asian leaders were urged yesterday to muster the political will to deal with the problem of forest fire haze that blankets the region regularly during their summit in Singapore later this year.
Regional think tanks, environmental groups and academics said the smog _ caused mainly by burnings in Indonesia _- is contributing significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions and could impact on climate change if left unchecked.
In a statement following a one-day dialogue here, the delegates acknowledged some “positive steps” taken by Indonesia to deal with the problem, but said Jakarta and the region needed to do more.
“The dialogue called for Asean leaders to give attention to the haze,” said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, which co-organised the event.
He said the delegates welcomed the intention of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders to focus on environmental issues at their summit in Singapore in November, hoping “that this would provide political will” to address the problem.
Tay said the delegates, including those from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and Centre for International Forestry, “highlighted the connections between the regional haze pollution and fires and the global challenge of climate change.”
Smoggy haze from the fires on Indonesia’s Sumatra and Kalimantan regions had sent air pollution levels in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore to unhealthy levels several times last year.
While the haze has not affected major cities in the region this year, this was attributed mainly to the wet weather and favourable wind direction.
Sundari Ramakrishna, coordinator of the Malaysian Environmental NGOs, said the Indonesian fires are expected to continue in the next 20-30 years if big palm oil plantations continue to clear peatlands to grow the plant.
Oil palm has a variety of uses, providing ingredients for disinfectants, pharmaceuticals, cooking oil, soap and biofuels.
The increasing need for cleaner energy, such as biofuels _ which can be derived from palm oil _ has also led to the clearing of more forests.
With more agricultural land lost to urbanisation, palm oil firms have moved further inland to clear tropical peatlands, Ramakrishna said.