Indonesia –-For much of the year, this city’s iconic Petronas Towers, the world’s tallest twin buildings, are gleaming landmarks visible far from the city center. But last weekend, the 88-story structures in the Malaysian capital were shrouded in a smoky haze that prompted doctors to warn people with respiratory problems to wear face masks. The haze, attributed mostly to fires burning on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, has become a recurring summer blight, engulfing parts of Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei and Singapore and leaving a litany of health and economic costs in its wake.
Experts say that some progress has been made in the 15 years since one of the worst forest fires in the region’s history, traced to the clearing of land by burning in Indonesia, brought members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, together with pledges to combat the problem. But far more must be done before the area will see clearer skies, experts say, including better law enforcement and cooperation among governments.
The haze that hit Kuala Lumpur last weekend was the worst so far this year, according to Halimah Hassan, director general of the Malaysian Department of Environment, with readings on the air pollution index exceeding the unhealthy threshold of 100.
By Monday, winds had begun pushing the haze toward northern parts of the country. Asean’s Haze Action Online Web site reported that the smoke was also affecting southern Thailand. The skies over Kuala Lumpur were clearer on Friday, and pollution levels in the capital had dropped back to mostly moderate levels. But unhealthy levels were reported in Miri, a city in Sarawak State on the island of Borneo, because of a fire that started Thursday.
Ms. Halimah warned that the haze could continue to be a problem over the coming months, given predictions of dry weather and southwesterly winds until September. The environment department has imposed a blanket ban on open fires in Malaysia and increased efforts to control local sources of air pollution. However, Ms. Halimah said that fires in Indonesia were primarily responsible for pushing the air pollution index to unhealthy levels.
A major source of smoke, researchers say, are fires set on palm oil and rubber plantations, primarily in Sumatra, to get rid of old trees and to clear land for new plantations. The 1997 fires in Indonesia smothered Southeast Asia in its worst haze in recent decades, with another severe episode occurring in 2005, said Euston Quah, a professor of environmental economics at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
The 1997 haze caused $4.5 billion in damage to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand, when a range of factors like health costs and declines in tourism were considered, Mr. Quah said. In response, Asean members developed a Regional Haze Action Plan to monitor and combat the pollution caused by land and forest fires. In 2002, they signed the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.
Ten years later, Indonesia remains the only country in the regional bloc not to have ratified the agreement. However, at an Asean meeting in May, environment ministers noted that Indonesia had begun the process of ratification, according to a statement on the Asean Web site.
Mr. Quah said he believed Indonesia had taken so long because it was not ready to meet the terms of the agreement. For example, he said, Indonesia would have to demonstrate a speedy response from all levels of government when fires broke out, a challenging task in the huge archipelago.
A statement by the Meteorological Service Singapore said that Asean members had been urging Indonesia to ratify the agreement. “With haze being a perennial challenge for the Asean region, we believe more should be done to combat the land and forest fires in the region,” it read.
At the May meeting, the Asean environment ministers noted that Indonesia had reduced the number of hot spots, areas with the potential for uncontrolled fires, but environmental experts say that better law enforcement is needed.
While clearing land by burning is now banned in Indonesia, Mr. Quah said that he was not aware of a single case in which a plantation owner had been prosecuted for a fire lighted on his property. He said the government should also provide incentives for villagers to report fires before they get out of control.
“If they report fires early, then they should be rewarded, either with gifts in kind or money so that we can control the small fires quickly,” he said.
Mr. Quah noted areas of progress: For example, Malaysia provided Indonesia with firefighting equipment and firefighters, while Singapore supplied satellite-imaging equipment to detect hot spots. Malaysia and Singapore have also “adopted” provinces in Indonesia to help them with land management, he said.
Kurnia Rauf, director of the forest fire control division in the Indonesian Forestry Ministry, said that tracking down the people responsible for illegal burning was difficult. “They set fires to open the area for planting because it’s much faster and easier,” he said.
He added that his division was trying to educate people about hot spot indicators. Local forestry officials were also leading ground checks, he said, and people can report hot spots to the forest fire control task force via cellphone.
Anthony Tan, executive director of the Center of Environment, Technology and Development Malaysia, an independent research organization in Kuala Lumpur, urged a broad view of the problem. He said that, while blame was typically directed at Indonesia, fires in other countries also contributed to the haze. “Asean as a bloc has to look at this problem as an Asean problem,” he said.