A nation of fire: What should we learn from the 1997/1998 haze?

A nation of fire: What should we learn from the 1997/1998 haze?
File Photo: Bushes that have caught fire are seen in the subdistrict of Rumbai, Pekanbaru on Indonesia's Riau province June 18, 2013.

JAMBI, INDONESIA - Although haze has a long history in Indonesia, regionally it has been a problem for ASEAN countries since 1997, when El Nino winds exacerbated the fires raging in the region.

That year marked the worst man-made disaster before the current situation. Haze largely comes from forest fires burning in Indonesia. Reuters reported back in 2009 that Indonesia's neighbouring countries, such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand (southern part) were covered by the haze in 1997, causing US$9 billion worth of losses to tourism, transportation and farming industries.

Forest fires, which reached epic proportions in 1997-1998 - covering 9.7 million hectares, caused destruction to the tune of $8.8 to $9.7 billion, according to the Interagency Mission Report.

Disasters are a regular occurrence during the dry season, particularly on Sumatra and Kalimantan, but the situation has deteriorated in the last decade in line with increasing land-clearing operations performed by timber and plantation firms.

Riau, which is located near Singapore, is the worst-affected province on Sumatra, while West Kalimantan is the main area suspected of sending a blanket of haze to Malaysia. Winds from the southeast and southwest have blown the haze toward Malaysia and Singapore.

Sufficient research has been carried out on forest fires, identifying both the cause and impact of the fires and attendant haze-related problems. According to Schweithelm and Glover (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies & International Development Research Center, 1999), one of the indirect impacts resulting from the haze was human ailments.

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