Worst haze ever shows urgent need for collective action

SINGAPORE - The haze in Southeast Asia has once again reared its ugly head, this time pushing Singapore's pollution levels to record highs and causing several parts of the Malaysian Peninsula to register unhealthy pollution readings.

Reports again point to land and palm oil plantation fires in Indonesia as the cause. This is a recurrent phenomenon and its return is greeted with a mix of anger and fatalism. Finger-pointing has ensued - at the various governments and palm oil plantations.

It is right to expect that regional governments should send the strongest political signal to address the situation. This is especially as the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting will take place just next week.

However, mere finger-pointing can be counterproductive because, fundamentally, Indonesian cooperation is needed.

Indonesia has taken up a high profile in leading ASEAN and will try to avoid tainting its growing reputation. Indonesian authorities also need to act for the sake of their own citizens - the worst of the haze afflicts the peoples of Riau living nearest the fires.

The global implications of the fires and haze for climate change are another dimension. The haze represents a huge spike in greenhouse gas emissions from Indonesia.

In ongoing United Nations climate negotiations, Indonesia stands to gain billions from schemes to reduce carbon emissions by avoiding deforestation and land degradation.

But, funding is contingent on proof that Indonesia can stand by pledges to conserve forests lands. The current fires vividly undercut such belief.

There are therefore domestic, regional and international reasons for Indonesia to effectively address the problem. Some elements in Indonesia will respond positively.

After all, in 2006, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono pledged to reduce the number of fires and this had some effect.

That presidential pledge should be renewed. More, Indonesia should finally ratify the ASEAN Haze Agreement that was concluded more than a decade ago. Yet even if it does, doubts remain about how effective Jakarta promises will be in the now decentralized provinces.

This is especially as the Indonesian forestry and agricultural ministries seem to take quite a different attitude. When criticised, an Indonesian forestry official responded recently that Singaporean and Malaysian companies are to be implicated.

Yet this is a critical question to be answered.

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