South East Asia — A ministerial meeting on haze pollution in Southeast Asia on Wednesday agreed to ban all open burning in the region, in anticipation of the El Nino hot weather condition exacerbating in the last quarter of the year. The Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze Pollution which met here, also agreed to suspend permits for prescribed burning activities in fire-prone areas such as in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Singapore’s Environment and Water Resources Minister Dr Yaacob Ibrahim told a media conference after the half-day meeting that MSC was concerned after the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre reported, the prevailing weak El Nino condition was forecast to intensify to a moderate to strong by the end of this year.
Saying the El Nino was likely to worsen and prolong the current dry spell in the region till October, he said the MSC expected there would be continued increase in hotspot activities in the fire-prone areas in Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sarawak over the next few months. The MSC noted that this was likely to lead to more incidences of transboundary smoke haze pollution in the region, the minister said.
Apart from Yaacob, the eighth MSC meeting was attended by Bruneian Development Minister Pehin Datuk Abdullah Bakar, Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar, Malaysian Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Douglas Uggah Embas, Thailands Pollution Control Department Director-General Dr Supat Wangwongwatana and Asean Environment Division Head Dr Rama Letchumanan.
In a separate statement, the MSC said the region experienced a sharp increase in the number of hotspots up to last Saturday, as compared to the same period in 2006 when the region last experienced severe smoke haze pollution.
The ministers noted that while there had been sporadic incidences of air quality reaching unhealthy levels, the situation was still under control due to mitigation actions taken by MSC countries.
The ministers also urged all MSC countries to put in place, enhanced measures to prevent and mitigate fires during this critical period, and agreed to promote public awareness to control fires. They also agreed to expeditiously provide assistance to joint emergency response to mitigate the fires, should the need arise.
Indonesia told the MSC it had taken several new and stricter actions in dealing with the haze pollution which included empowering its authorities to prosecute offenders, issuing warning letters to local governments and companies in fire-prone provinces, carrying cloud-seeding operations and banning open burning in Central Kalimantan since early this month.
Replying to questions by the media, Rachmat said, with a vast territory and millions of farmers — many of whom still practised the slash-and-burn method of farming — Indonesia would need longer time to reduce the hotspots and curb the haze pollution.
However, he said since the MSC was established (in 2006) and Indonesia became a member, there was a lot of improvement in the haze situation in the region. Yaacob said, what mattered most was that there was a strong will among members of the MSC to seriously tackle the haze problem which had long been affecting the region.
He said Singapore would host the MSC forum in October, back-to-back with the 11th Asean Ministerial Meeting on the Environment, involving local authorities of MSC countries and international organisations to share experiences and best practices in addressing land and forest fires and transboundary haze pollution.