Southeast Asia’s greatest menace makes an unwanted return

Southeast Asia’s greatest menace makes an unwanted return

27 September 2009

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Singapore —

As Singapore geared up for its annual Formula One outing today, the thoughts of race organisers were dominated by three issues. There was the cheating Renault team, which made headlines around the world for rigging a crash on the same course a year earlier. And there’s the prospect that ticket sales will be down at least 10 per cent from the 100,000 capacity that crammed into the street circuit stands last year.

Lastly, and making a most unwelcome return, has been the dreaded haze, which potentially will have the dirtiest and biggest impact on the Grand Prix. Health officials in the pristine city-state fear pollution could reach dangerous levels.

The haze has choked Southeast Asia on and off for more than a decade. If Singapore is wincing from an overdose of carbon monoxide, then so too is the entire Indonesian archipelago along with Malaysia, from the tip of north Borneo to southern Thailand and beyond.

“The unplanned or uncontrolled conversion of forest land to non-forest agricultural uses will continue throughout the region for the foreseeable future,” said Jack Hurd, the Bangkok-based director of the Nature Conservancy’s Forest Trade programme.

He said this was consistent with the economic development paradigm that most countries have followed, and would continue to follow. “Neighbouring nations – most notably Singapore – have very little leverage over the situation because there are not, as of yet, any international norms for controlling air pollution of this nature.”

It’s a situation that could also get much worse as Southeast Asia is bracing itself for stronger El Nino weather conditions over the next few months.

El Nino is a recurring weather system that results in an abnormal warming of surface ocean waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. This can prove disruptive to weather patterns and is often blamed for droughts in Australia.

Typically this will result in worsening dry conditions and increased hotspots in Indonesia, traditionally the chief source of the haze. Peat fires in Indonesia are associated with land clearing for short-term agricultural purposes and logging. In turn, the land is dried and susceptible to fires that can race out of control.

Oscar Venter, a conservationist biologist with the University of Queensland, said the haze from these fires would have a strong impact on people’s lives, and their life expectancies – and clearly not enough was being done to prevent them, particularly in light of the global ramifications caused by the fires.

“These fires also have an enormous impact on climate change,” he added. “Twenty-five per cent of the carbon released into the atmosphere in 1997 came from peat swamp fires in Indonesia – that’s phenomenal.”

Malaysia has offered water-dumping aircraft to douse the fires, and Singapore will host a regional ministers’ meeting next month to help co-ordinate a strategy to battle the fires and the haze.

One issue that remains unresolved is that both Indonesia and the Philippines have yet to ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which was signed in 2002.

Singapore’s environment minister Yaacob Ibrahim said that international media scrutiny of the haze was inevitable during the Grand Prix and the November Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings.

“Even though Indonesia has not ratified [the agreement], we have moved forward because we realise that we have other challenges which cannot wait. When the haze outbreak in 2006 came about, we felt it was important for the five Asean countries to come together and deal with it collectively.

“Thus far, Singapore and Malaysia have made progress by collaborating with some of the local provinces. We acknowledge that Indonesia has been trying to implement measures to bring down the hotspots.

“As to whether or not their plan of action is on target will be up to Indonesia to review, but we believe that the Indonesian government remains sincere in combating haze, as it affects the health and quality of life of their citizens as well,” Mr Ibrahim said.

Mr Hurd said bilateral discussions would allow a diplomatic expression of concern, and even a commitment of resources and an attempt to regulate and control the burning.

“But my expectation is that this will have a marginal effect on the overall level of haze that materialises from the practice.”

He said the real solution was a comprehensive effort on the part of governments to bring land conversion under control and regulate, more forcefully, that which is legal.

This could mean the use of different methods of clearing that do not result in so much air pollution, as the low costs associated with burning-off were derived from the fact that the cost of pollution is passed on to others to absorb.

“For those wood products destined for international markets, emerging requirements for legal or certified forest products, and the changing government structures set up to deal with this, may reduce the amount of illegal forestry activity, including conversion, in places such as Indonesia.”

But the costs in enforcing such a code could prove significant.

“The best chance that exists for reducing haze will probably be a global agreement – including policy commitments and market mechanisms – to generate funds for verifiable reductions in emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

“The financial flows that may become available might be just the incentive required for countries to reduce deforestation and forest degradation and the associated haze from burning. In the absence of such an agreement, haze will continue to be a problem, specifically in El Nino years,” Mr Hurd concluded.

Such issues are expected to be raised at the Copenhagen conference on climate change in December when the UN will attempt to broker an international successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

However, Mr Venter is adamant that governments must do more at the national level and ensure fires are no longer used to clear land in Indonesia. In return, Jakarta could see a capital return on the forests that are saved.

“Providing incentives, such as small grants, to help make mechanical clearing of land with bulldozers more affordable, would probably go a long way to reducing fires and haze.

“If successful, it would also help Indonesia reduce unnecessary forest loss from burning, which would help capture carbon payments.”

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