The start of the dry season in Indonesia is just around the corner and it will once again threaten the region with hazy skies.
Smoke-belching forest and peatland fires in Indonesia are the main cause of haze between June and October every year.
Normally, hot and dry weather conditions make the carbon-rich peatlands there highly flammable. The risk of fire rises when the peatlands are drained of water for oil palm and other plantations.
Last year, the fires burned harder and for longer, because of the El Nino weather phenomenon, which led to prolonged hot and dry weather in the region.
It resulted in an extended period of intense haze over parts of Indonesia and its neighbours - causing illness and death, grounding flights and closing schools. There was renewed determination to stop the haze-belching fires after that. Last October, ASEAN environment ministers set a target for the region to be haze-free by 2020. But how achievable is this?
It seems likely that, this year, the haze in Singapore will not be as bad as that last year. Climatologists said El Nino conditions are expected to subside in the middle of this year.
"With the El Nino conditions subsiding, the chance for anomalously hot and dry weather in Sumatra is smaller and forest fires are unlikely to be as rampant as last year," said Associate Professor Koh Tieh Yong, a weather researcher from SIM University.
El Nino is likely to be followed by La Nina, which induces fire-dousing rain in this part of the world.
So the weather may be on our side this year, but what about next year, the year after that, and in 2020 and beyond?
Greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to climate change, which means extreme weather will become more frequent. Models have predicted that climate change could double the number of extreme El Ninos.
"The chance of a repeat of last year's haze will be reduced if the factors that the Indonesian government can control - such as fire-fighting resources and adequate water supplies - are suitably prepared in the fire-risk regions," said Assistant Professor Winston Chow of the National University of Singapore's geography department.
An Indonesian official said last month that there will be "zero chance" that haze of last year's magnitude will affect the region, as the Indonesian government and other stakeholders have "full determination" to tackle the issue.
Indeed, after last year's crisis, Indonesia devised plans to tackle the issue. The Peatland Restoration Agency, set up in January to restore about 2 million ha of peatland in seven provinces by 2020, is just one of them.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo last month also proposed to stop allowing new land to be used for oil palm plantations, urging producers to concentrate on using better seeds to increase their yields.
But these moves were greeted with caution by observers who, like Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan, wondered if they are more form than substance.
Dr Erik Velasco, a researcher from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, said policies should focus on providing alternative livelihoods for the people who rely heavily on the palm oil industry.
"Investments in different industries, including sustainable agro-industry, may help. I believe that strong investment in education would be a real solution to eradicate the problem."
At the industry level, Asia Pulp and Paper as well as Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings- among the largest pulp and paper firms in Indonesia and which are implicated in causing the haze - have programmes to help villagers living near or within their concessions to find alternative livelihoods, such as growing fruit or vegetables or rearing livestock.
Taken individually, the various policies may sound promising. But for the haze to stop, the gears must mesh together nicely.
Mr Chris Cheng, strategic adviser to volunteer group People's Movement to Stop Haze, recommended scaling up projects to enable livelihoods that do not contribute to the haze and strengthening law enforcement.
However, "policies may not deliver their full impact unless One Map is completed to show high fire-risk areas, as well as land ownership and operational status", he said.
The One Map initiative aims to mark all forest boundaries and concessions clearly on one official map that can be referred to by all parties. This will improve transparency and accountability, and minimise land disputes.
WHAT SINGAPORE HAS DONE
Singapore has been hit badly by haze over the years and recognises that it has a part to play in fighting the problem.
It used the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act - passed in Parliament in 2014 - for the first time last year to punish those causing or condoning fires that result in unhealthy levels of haze in Singapore.
The Republic sent notices to six Indonesia-based firms, asking them to explain the steps being taken to put out and prevent fires on their land.
Last month, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli also said the Government will, from September, buy only printing paper products that bear the Singapore Green Label - which recognises suppliers that practise sustainable forestry management.
These are steps in the right direction. But SMU's Associate Professor Tan said more can be done in the areas of consumer education, procurement policy in the private sector, and in ensuring that Singapore and Singapore- based financial institutions practise responsible financing diligently.
This, he said, will compel polluters to adopt responsible and sustainable agricultural practices, penalising errant firms that either clear land by fire, or do not take enough steps to douse fires when they occur.
Dr Velasco said that to penalise errant firms, their finances must be dealt with. "The economy behind the haze is similar to that of drugs, for which the only effective sanctions are those affecting finances," he said.
Mr Masagos noted at a recent press briefing that international consumer goods firm Unilever - which owns over 400 brands, including Dove - has dropped a leading Malaysian palm oil producer because of deforestation in its plantations in Indonesia.
He said: "If we do not get our act together, not only would we suffer from pollution and the greenhouse effect, (but) companies all over the world that are attuned to this problem will also stop buying from the region."
Even as fingers are pointed at Indonesia and the palm oil, pulp and paper industries, it must not be forgotten that supply is driven by demand.
Prof Tan noted that the gravity of the challenge and the fact that the problem has improved little all these years suggest that all is not well and that ASEAN has its work cut out for it.
Plans at the governmental and industry levels are already in place.
Perhaps consumer action will be the fuel that powers the region to a haze-free 2020 and beyond.
This article was first published on May 9, 2016.
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