by Mai Hien
Measures to tackle the haze that has blighted parts of Southeast Asia dominated the meeting of environment ministers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Wednesday.
The haze was no longer just an environmental issue, but a political one too.
The meeting happened less than a month after thick smog caused by forest fires in Indonesia's Sumatra Island enveloped Singapore and parts of Malaysia.
Environment ministers from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and Thailand reached a compromise on the adoption of a haze monitoring system that would include using satellite images to uncover companies responsible for starting smog-producing fires.
At the meeting, Indonesia, the only ASEAN country yet to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, showed its seriousness in combating the haze situation by pledging to join the agreement soon.
"We hope we can ratify the agreement by the end of the year or early next year," Indonesian Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya said, according to the AFP.
Indonesia's commitment was lauded by ASEAN.
Its secretary-general, Le Luong Minh, said the move showed the Indonesian government was ready to mobilise available sources to put out fires and eradicate the haze problem.
Haze is not new in the region. Dry season wild fires occur every year in Indonesia and Malaysia as farmers burn their crops to clear land for new plants.
However, the haze this year is the worst recorded in living memory.
Malaysia declared a state of emergency in its southern state of Johor, forcing hundreds of schools to close when the air pollution index hit a hazardous level.
Singapore advised people to stay indoors and wear air filtering masks when outdoors as pollution reached the highest level in decades.
According to Riau Health Agency, the haze has left an estimated 10,300 people suffering from acute respiratory infections in Riau province, Indonesia. Half of them are children under five years of age.
According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for the Asia-Pacific, lives lost through pollution caused by vehicles, industries and energy production activities in Asian cities is high, with an estimated 500,000 premature deaths occurring each year.
The haze does not only affect people's health but also countries' economies.
Rajiv Biswas, chief Asia-Pacific economist at research firm HIS Global Insight, warned that the impact on Singapore from the Indonesian haze could be hugely harmful.
"Images of haze enveloping Singapore are being widely reported on TV channels and in global media and may be particularly damaging to Singapore's world-class tourism industry," he said.
Tourism is a revenue-spinner for Singapore and it contributes 4 per cent to the country's Gross domestic product.
The incident has sparked a diplomatic war of words between Indonesia, as the source of the haze, and Malaysia and Singapore – countries that experienced the smog.
With the fires in Indonesia the primary cause of the haze problem, the Indonesian government were quick to blame Malaysian and Singaporean companies owning large oil palm plantations in Sumatra, while Malaysian and Singapore authorities angrily pointed out the responsibility of Indonesia to enforce anti-burning laws. Whatever the arguments, it is clear that all these countries are connected and interdependent. They all benefit from the farming, and they all suffer from the haze.
With estimated exports of 31 million metric tonnes in 2013, Indonesia supplies 53 per cent of the world's palm oil trade, while Malaysia follows with some 33 per cent or 19 million metric tonnes.
Growing worldwide demand means that the oil plantations will be expanded, potentially having a large impact on the air pollution in the region.
Tackling the haze requires regional co-operation rather than constantly playing the blame game.
Despite Indonesia's commitment to ratifying the ASEAN agreement, the country faces challenges in its implementation. Its lack of resources and the need to control many small, independent farms make it hard to mitigate the situation.
Under the pact, signatories have to respond promptly to a request for relevant information sought by a state affected by haze pollution. This may rankle with Indonesia considering the current regional squabbling.
The guilty party?
Indonesian police have reportedly named PT Adei Plantation and Industry, a subsidiary of Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhard (KLK), as a suspect in the haze-creating forest burning in Riau.
Indonesian National Police spokesperson Ronny F Sompie said the company allegedly carried out irresponsible burning practices, a claim which KLK denied to the Jakarta Post. The company insists it has acted in full compliance with ASEAN's zero burning policy on its plantations.
The firm, however, has acknowledged minor occurrences of wild fires within its territory due to the dry season.
Despite having almost a month to investigate, only one suspect has been named and it has yet to be punished. It is not enough. Indonesia must show that it is committed to tackling the problem and bringing wrongdoers to justice. Actions speak louder than words.
Although the primary responsibility for taking action lies with Indonesia, new approaches are needed by all parties to prepare for the reoccurrence of haze and to address the processes that are driving forest fires. Regional partners must engage more effectively with Indonesia on fire prevention and sustainable farming practices.
Faizai Parish, senior technical advisor to ASEAN's peatland forests project, forecast that it will take a long time to find an effective solution to the haze.
"There is no magic wand. The root causes are there. There will be some people who will do some land clearing by fires," AFP quoted him as saying.
It's time for responsible partners to take immediate action, with the dry season stretching to October. Only by acting together can the regions of Southeast Asia secure a healthy and livable environment. — VNS