When the haze doesn't go away

When the haze doesn't go away
A hazy day at Lower Seletar Reservoir around 11.15am on 19 September 2015.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Singapore has been shrouded in haze from the Indonesian forest fires in recent weeks. This transboundary pollution problem remains intractable despite seemingly increased efforts in recent years to mitigate it.

The region should not expect this problem - which has lasted for at least two decades - to be resolved any time soon.

The recent policy enacted by Singapore - to impose harsh fines on errant companies whose activities contribute to the transboundary haze - is likely to be futile. The reason is simple: The problem lies outside Singapore's jurisdiction and cannot be solved by us alone.

The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, passed in Singapore's Parliament last year, will not have any impact on the transboundary haze if Singapore companies are the only ones hauled up to face the law, whereas non-Singapore firms contributing to the haze problem go scot-free.

Many also optimistically expect that Indonesia will take action against those responsible for illegal forest fires, but that is not going to happen fast enough for the haze to clear up soon.

In the meantime, what could be done? While international pressure on the culprits should continue, it is extremely important to work with stakeholders, which include not only the victim countries but also farmers and plantation owners in haze-originating countries, regional organisations (for example, ASEAN, Apec), global agencies (for example, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund) and other non-governmental organisations.

For Singapore, it is crucial that we accept that the haze will be with us for years to come, and learn to live with it while mitigation efforts are ongoing.

A COMPLEX PROBLEM

At the root of the problem is the cross-boundary nature of the haze pollution. It is difficult for any country to assert extra-territorial jurisdiction without infringing on the sovereignty of other nations.

For Indonesia, enacting land-use statutes or changing institutions to regulate forest burning can be tedious.

Nevertheless, the greater challenge lies in the enforcement of these laws.

As highlighted in an earlier Straits Times article ("Tough to pinpoint haze culprits"; Sept 15), the identification of errant culprits is no easy feat and the prosecution of perpetrators is also a long-drawn-out process.

Besides, Indonesia, as a developing country, has to carefully allocate its resources across other critical needs such as infrastructure development, education and subsidies to the poor.

The onsets of the forest fires are exacerbated by natural factors like the cyclical El Nino which prolongs the drought and intensifies the fires.

In fact, meteorologists predict that this year's El Nino will have one of the strongest effects since 1950. With Indonesia being home to the world's largest area of tropical peatland, dousing its forest fires is evidently a much harder task than it appears.

The peat can continue to burn for months even after surface fires have been put out.

ECONOMIC COSTS

The haze imposes significant costs on the region. Haze particles can cause eye and throat irritation and respiratory illnesses, that will entail more medical expenses and cause a loss in productivity.

Other sectors of the economy, such as tourism, retail and conferencing, will also be affected when tourists decide to skip the haze-affected countries. Indirect costs in the form of reduced visibility and cancellation of recreational activities are also significant.

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