Return of the Haze

Return of the Haze  

11 October 2011

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Indonesia — Typhoons in the Philippines and heavy rains that have caused major flooding in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have failed to head south where rain is sorely needed to douse forest and possibly peat fires that have ensured the annual re-run of the dreaded haze.

Eye tingling and occasionally gut retching, the inability of Indonesia to end the burning off that creates the haze is an unfortunate testament to the centralized powers of Jakarta and a reality check for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in particular Singapore and Malaysia where it is felt most.

In a desperate bid to stamp out the fires, lit to clear land for crops and palm oil plantations, the Indonesian government has begun cloud seeding operations over Sumatra in an attempt to trigger rain and hopefully prevent this year’s blankets of smog enveloping a large chunk of the region.

The seeding will be conducted over 90 days with two Spanish built CAS 212-200 aircraft, deployed after 1,241 hot spots were identified in Sumatra and hundreds more in Kalimantan on Indonesian Borneo.
There are also fears that peat fires might have ignited, which can burn underground for months.

Controlled burning, spraying and trench construction are also being used to combat the fires, but the truth is none of this will have much of an impact. Cloud seeding is typically about as effective as an American Indian rain dance and an exchange of letters between governments is unlikely to score any further success.

The haze takes an enormous toll on what’s left of Indonesia’s wildlife that includes orangutans, elephants and tigers, and the Asian Development Bank says financial losses are enormous and measured in billions of dollars. This is partially because Jakarta, where prevailing winds mean locals don’t get to enjoy the handiwork of their cousins in the bush, simply won’t enforce its own laws.

At the same time, ASEAN foreign policy – which decrees ‘though shalt not dabble in thy neighbor’s affairs’ – is failing, and as a result denying more than 200 million people their right to clean air. Parts of Malaysia have been declared a risk to health.

In 2002, ASEAN adopted an agreement on cross-border haze pollution to co-ordinate fire fighting, while a peat land management strategy and a panel of experts was assembled to coordinate efforts to stem the fire causing haze.

But Indonesia has failed to ratify the treaty, thus ensuring financial interests – whether its big business interests or naïve farmers – will guarantee The Haze makes a scheduled return for years to come, not unlike a very bad B-grade movie.

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