Balakrishnan calls for quick action on haze management

Balakrishnan calls for quick action on haze management

04 May 2014

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ASEAN — There is an urgent need for governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and local communities to work together and insist on transparency, expedite investigations and prosecute those responsible for forest fires, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan.

Despite South-east Asia experiencing one of the worse episodes of haze last year — which had “brutal” impact on the economy, livelihoods, people’s health and the environment — the fire burning season began even earlier this year, said Dr Balakrishnan, who was speaking at the Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta today (May 5).

Last month, Dr Balakrishan had expressed frustration at the unwillingness of countries — among them Indonesia and Malaysia — to share the land use and concession maps needed for ASEAN’s haze monitoring system to work. The system aims to identify responsible parties and the causes of regional haze.

Today, he stressed that it was important to remember that while the haze affected Singapore, there are far more citizens in Indonesia and Malaysia who were affected.

“Businesses also suffered losses and workers who work at worksites and even wafer fab (plants) were affected because the air in the plants was contaminated. Airports were closed and we all know that in fact, the external cost of haze far exceeded the short term profits that the companies would have gained,” he said.

He also pointed out the irony of climate change negotiators running up large carbon footprints jetting off all over the world to engage in talks.

“I find it ironic that we argue about shaving a few percentage points in the international commitments, but yet right here in our neighbourhood, we are releasing such copious amount of carbon dioxide,” he said.

In the meantime, while companies responsible for industrial-scale deforestation are not liable for paying for the damage that they cause to the external environment, the larger economy and the people are most affected by the hardships, he added.

It is impractical to call for a halt to development, but companies and other stakeholders can all operate in a more transparent way.

“Unilever has committed that it will track the source of its palm oil, all the way down to its plantations and therefore sends a message that it wants its sources to be derived from sustainable practices,” he said.

NGOs also play an important role. In a day and age where satellite photos are made available almost real-time, air quality sensors are always on, and easy Internet access, “we got to turn those eyes and build a system of transparency which makes people accountable for their actions”, Dr Balakrishnan said.

At the summit, Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose term ends this year, called on his successor to continue with Indonesia’s moratorium on granting forest concessions. The move, he said, has managed to reduce an estimated 211 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, from what would have been the case if it was business as usual.

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