Recurring episodes of land and forest fires have been a feature of Southeast Asia’s ecology since the Pleistocene Age. These wildfires are made possible by dry spells that make even rainforests dry enough to burn. During the Ice Age, long dry spells occurred in Southeast Asia, which made large areas of the region vulnerable to fire. More recently, the climatological disturbance known as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has repeatedly set the stage for large-scale wildfires in the ASEAN region.

Over the past two decades, these fires have been so intense and frequent that they have threatened a number of ASEAN member countries. The damage from the fires has gone beyond the destruction of forest land. The smoke from the fires has threatened human health in adjacent ASEAN countries, which have thus far had little control over the magnitude, frequency, and duration of these fire-and-haze episodes.

Nearly all large-scale fires in the ASEAN region over the past two decades have been caused by humans, not natural causes. In some ways, this is good news, since the fires can be controlled by changing human behavior. The ASEAN countries are well aware of this. Between 1982 and 1997, ASEAN launched several national and international initiatives for controlling wildfires. These include the Bandung Conference of 1992, a number of regional workshops and meetings on the transboundary atmospheric pollution problem held in Indonesia and Malaysia between 1992 and 1995, and the establishment of a Haze Technical Task Force (HTTF) at the Sixth Meeting of the ASEAN Senior Officials on the Environment (ASOEN) in September of 1995.

While the HTTF’s initial goal was to implement the 1995 ASEAN Co-operation Plan on Transboundary Pollution, the absence of specific plans rendered the Co-operation Plan ineffective. The ASEAN region then faced another major haze episode in 1997.

Following the 1997 fires and haze, the affected ASEAN countries decided to take more focused action. Indonesia and Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding on December 11, 1997, which allowed the two countries to co-operate in addressing the haze and other disasters.

The initiatives described above ultimately led to formulation of the Regional Haze Action Plan (RHAP), which was signed by the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Haze held in Singapore from 22-23 December 1997. This document, prepared by the HTTF, was the third of its type to be endorsed by the ASEAN member countries. Ultimately, the signing of the RHAP became a turning point in the way ASEAN went about preventing and reducing the damage from these fire-and-haze events.



Once the ASEAN Environment Ministers’ signed the RHAP, they immediately set out to make it an operational, rather than a descriptive, document. They realised that ASEAN’s fire-and-haze problem is too large for any one institution to address it effectively. Because of this, the Ministers requested assistance from the Asian Development Bank to make the RHAP a fully operational document. The Bank responded by approving Regional Technical Assistance (RETA) 5778-REG ((Strengthening the Capacity of ASEAN to Prevent and Mitigate Transboundary Atmospheric Pollution).1 At the request of the Government of Indonesia, the Bank also approved a complementary Advisory (i.e., bilateral) Technical Assistance (ADTA) 2999-INO (Planning for Fire Prevention and Drought Management) less than one month later.2

The purposes of both the RETA and the ADTA are to:

  • assist in formulating specific actions to be taken by ASEAN member countries for putting into place an organisational framework for sustainably addressing the region’s fire-and-haze problem in the long-term;
  • identify specific investments to put this organisational framework into place; and
  • catalyse partnerships between ASEAN countries and international donor organisations that directly complement the specific actions ASEAN countries have identified for confronting the region’s fire-and-haze problem.

In short, the purpose of the RETA is to catalyse operationalization and implementation of the RHAP by the ASEAN Member Countries and to catalyse the development of a monitoring system for implementation of the RHAP.

The RHAP is meant to be implemented continuously. When the Ministers endorsed it, they endorsed a process, not a once-over exercise. This means that the RHAP is a ‘living’ document — one that is meant to be continuously updated. This is why the “official” version of the RHAP is not a hard-bound document, but an electronic document put on a restricted-access Intranet. All printed versions of the RHAP should therefore be seen as a snapshot taken at a single moment that freezes the action in a dynamic process of continuous updating and refinement.


The RHAP has three components: prevention, monitoring, and mitigation. In operational terms this means:

Prevention of forest fires and consequent haze, which includes:

  • Management and dissemination of information on the human health impacts (or likely impacts) of existing or forecasted haze presence or movement;
  • Reviewing national policies to determine how they likely affect the use of fire for forest-clearing and making appropriate policy changes;
  • Providing economic incentives for promoting the new products and technologies that use biomass, logging and land-clearing residues;
  • Forecasting changes in climate that may trigger off fire-and-haze episodes and mapping high-risk areas in response to such changes in climate;
  • Linking up national efforts to fight land and forest fires by:
  • Implementing national plans that serve as the foundation for the Regional Haze Action Plan which increases the readiness of each ASEAN country to meet land or forest fire emergencies within its own boundaries;
  • Harmonizing and integrating the national plans at the regional level to enable countries to respond in concert to a regional forest fire;
  • Enabling the linking of national firefighting capabilities in any combination within ASEAN; and
  • Implementing an ASEAN-wide Forest Fire Readiness Protocol that formalizes links among national-level firefighting capabilities to facilitate their rapid deployment.

Mitigation of land and forest fires and consequent haze, which comprises:

  • Facilitating training and re-training of forest firefighters at the national and regional level to ensure that personnel are equipped to cope with future forest fires;
  • Inventory of existing firefighting personnel and equipment at the national level to determine the maximum scale of a forest fire that the existing firefighting capability is equipped to handle;
  • Strengthening national firefighting capability to ensure that each country’s capacity is sufficient to cope with forest fire events likely to occur on an annual basis;
  • Ensuring the continued readiness of national firefighting capability through regular maintenance of equipment and upgrading of skills among firefighting personnel;

Monitoring for prevention and mitigation of forest fires and consequent haze by:

  • Detecting wildfires;
  • Predicting and tracking their movements and the movement of resulting haze;
  • Forecasting the degree to which wildfires are likely to cause haze and the type of emissions;
  • Determining the likely health impacts of typical or particular haze episodes;
  • Determining the areas historically affected by forest-fire-and-haze episodes in the region, or those likely to be affected by particular episodes; and
  • Assessing the impact of past forest fire episodes, extent of area burnt, the flora and fauna destroyed, and the cost of particular forest fire episodes at the local, national, regional and global levels.


Compared to other donor projects and programmes relating to ASEAN’s fire-and-haze problem, the RETA is a small project. It’s total funding is only US$1.2 million, and it is scheduled to last only 12 months. The money and time allocated for RETA activities is therefore small in relation to many of the other donor-supported fire-and-haze projects and programmes.

How can the RETA finish the task of operationalizing and implementing the RHAP in such a short time, and with such a small amount of money? Of course, the RETA cannot do all of this by itself nor was it ever intended to.

The RETA is actually meant to act as a catalyst. Its role is to link the large number of donor-supported projects and programmes with the fire-and-haze initiatives with those of the ASEAN member countries and with ASEAN as a whole.

The RETA’s first interaction with international donor organisations began just days after the RETA started operations. Just ten days after start-up, the RETA convened an Informal Meeting of Donors on April 23, 1998 in Jakarta. It then held an Open Forum Discussion a few weeks later on May 11, again in Jakarta. Several commitments from donors to work together with the RETA were made at these and later meetings. The list of partnerships that the RETA has developed during its first three months of operation is long and includes:

  • Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID)
  • Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)
  • European Community (EC)
  • GTZ [Gesellschaft fuer Technische Zusammenarbeit (German Government Agency for Technical Cooperation)]
  • Hanns Seidel Foundation
  • International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
  • Impacts Centre for Southeast Asia (IC-SEA)
  • Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)
  • Singapore Environment Council (SEC)
  • Southeast Asia Fire Monitoring Centre
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
  • UN-FAO/ ECE/ ILO Team of Specialists on Forest Fire
  • United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
  • UNDP Asia Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP)
  • US Agency for International Development (USAID)
  • US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • US Forest Service
  • US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • WALHI (an NGO umbrella organization that coordinates work with a large number of NGOs operating out of Indonesia)
  • World Bank
  • World Health Organization (WHO)
  • World Meteorological Organization (WMO)
  • World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)

The goal of all of the partnerships listed above is the same: to work with ASEAN in implementing and monitoring the implementation of the RHAP in order to create a united front in the fight against the fires and haze.

Some of the partnerships in the list above include direct inputs into RETA activities, as well as broader donor assistance to implementing and monitoring the RHAP. These donors include Asian Development Bank, the Australian Agency for International Development, the Hanns Seidel Foundation, and United Nations Development Programme. The RETA gratefully acknowledges these direct contributions, as well as the contributions of all of the above organisations that have joined hands with the RETA in implementing the RHAP, and in finding a long-term, sustainable solution to what otherwise would have spelled repeated destruction of the environment in the ASEAN region.

1. RETA 5778-REG, in an amount of USD1.0 million, approved on February 24, 1998; ASEAN counterpart funding in an amount of USD 0.2 million.

2. ADTA 2999-INO, in an amount of USD1.0 million, approved on March 20, 1998. State Ministry for National Development of the Republic of Indonesia (BAPENAS) counterpart funding in an amount of USD 0.2 million.

The ASEAN website offers access to the Regional Haze Action Plan (23 Dec 1997), the ASEAN Cooperation Plan on Transboundary Pollution (1995) and  several Joint Press Statements of the ASEAN Ministerial Meetings on Haze (1997-1999).


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