ASEAN / Indonesia KUALA LUMPUR – Asean members are contemplating how to respond to Indonesian assurances that measures are in place to prevent the recurrence of thick haze that has blanketed the region for years.
The haze is made up chiefly of smoke from forest fires and is also blamed on the slash-and-burn practice of plantation owners. Corporations clearing virgin land for palm plantations are blamed by outside investigators.
Indonesia again came under the spotlight at the meeting of the 10 Asean environment ministers in the Malaysian capital.
Officially titled the Conference of Parties to the Asean Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution (CPATBHP), the annual meeting was to oversee the implementation of the agreement that was first signed in 2002.
“The Indonesian government has strong commitment to preventing land and forest fires in the initial stage,” claimed Arief Yuwono, the senior energy advisor to the minister of environment and forestry. “This is a directive from the President”, Joko Widodo, he told a news conference after the one-day meeting.
He said the Indonesian government is targeting capacity-building in local communities, with such initiatives as setting up fire brigades in some 700 villages.
Malaysian Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Jaafar said Indonesia gave the assurance that it is ready to deal with haze.
“I take note of that assurance and, based on that, 2016 may not be as severe as 2015,” he said.
The Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) based in Singapore issued its weather outlook, noting that the dry period can be expected in the southern Asean region between August and September this year, as always.
“The Asean member states pledged to remain vigilant and continuously monitor and step up their haze-preventing efforts to minimise any possible occurrence of trans-boundary smoke haze from land and forest fires in anticipation of the drier weather”, the ministers said in a joint statement for the media.
Last year, in September and October, haze carried by prevailing winds blanketed Singapore and Malaysia and reached both the Philippines and all the way up southern Thailand to Surat Thani, Koh Samui and beyond.
Records showed 2015 was one of the worst haze episodes since 1997. The air quality index in the epicentres in Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Sumatra hit nearly 2,000, or almost six times the “hazardous” level of 350, according to the Pollution Standard Index (PSI) of Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics (AMCG).
Environmental and health hazards aside, the haze issues have, in the past, sparked a diplomatic war of words between Jakarta and the two neighbouring countries, Singapore and Malaysia.
Indonesian Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar skipped the meeting, but Mr Yuwono played down her absence, saying Indonesia is committed to fighting haze “because we also suffer in the crisis.”
At the meeting, the ministers discussed plans to establish the “Asean coordinating centre for trans-boundary haze pollution control” in Indonesia. Jakarta is tasked with coming up with a draft agreement on the establishment of the centre.
They also reviewed the standard operating procedures for monitoring, assessing and joint emergency response, sharing inputs on sustainable management of peatland, agricultural land and forest for peatland fire prevention, and the policies and laws needed to be put in place.
The environment ministers’ meeting will be hosted by Brunei next year.