Fires and haze are not uniquely Indonesian but occur throughout the region where forests and peatlands occur.
Unfortunately for Indonesia, because of its large extent of both, the unfavourable wind direction blows the haze over and discomfits its neighbours. But the people of Indonesia are the ones who suffer the most and it is in the country's interest to solve the problem.
To better understand the complexity of the problem, one needs to appreciate the primary source of the haze, the root causes, and the multiple actors and vested interests that collide and collude to make simple solutions complex and intractable.
Peatlands are the least understood, unrecognised, and the first to be exploited among all of the natural ecosystems, but are the most damaging as far as fires and haze are concerned.
Peatland fires contribute to about 90 per cent of the haze. Therefore, reducing peatland fires will substantially reduce or even eliminate transboundary haze pollution. The ASEAN region has about 25 million hectares of tropical peatlands, about 60 per cent of the world total.
Peatlands are unique wetland ecosystems formed over thousands of years, consisting of partly decomposed vegetation which is primarily carbon, and can remain in its stable state only if sufficient water is present. Lowering the water level will expose and turn the peat soil into tinder.
Peatlands are often seen as swamps, waste land and uninhabitable. Large areas are exploited for plantations, agro-forestry and cash crops.
Invariably, the first intervention on virgin peatland is to drain the water through deep canals (which also transport valuable timber) to plant other non-native species of commercial value.
This is akin to draining blood from the body. It permanently destroys and kills the peatland ecosystem and its unique biodiversity, and creates the perfect conditions for recurrent fires and choking smoke haze thereafter.
Actually, there are well established sustainable methods of farming and managing peatlands. But as Singapore Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan succinctly put it: The reason companies take shortcuts, burn forests, drain peatlands is simply that the economics favour such behaviours.
This, of course, applies not only to companies, but all those operating on peatlands.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo's visit to Riau included a personal demonstration of canal blocking to a crowd of local people. Canal blocking is done to re-wet the peatlands to make them less prone to fires.
But what comes to mind is who built those canals in the first place. The abandoned maze of well-planned deep canals suggests that they must have been the work of deep-pocketed investors, carried out with heavy machinery. But no one was made responsible for blocking the canals after they had left.
Most times, it is the locals who are directly affected, risking their lives building rudimentary makeshift canal blocks. If only the local authorities and the companies could help out and do this on a systematic and regular basis.
Large concessionaires have a well-managed system of canals within their lands. Experts estimate a water level of 40-60cm below ground level is needed for maximum productivity of crops and maintaining the ecological integrity of peatlands.
Companies looking at quick short-term gains are just keen to destroy the peatland ecosystem with a single cropping cycle, and then look for new fertile areas.
Strangely, there are protests against an Indonesian moratorium on opening new peatland areas, and regulations on maintaining water level, when these regulations are helping the companies to get better value out of their existing concessions. Most importantly, the footprint of a peatland ecosystem covers a much larger area in terms of its hydrological (water) system.
Systemic water management can only take place at this landscape level, not individuals blocking canals or even large plantations managing water within their concessions.
In any case, the biggest challenge in managing water, or the acute lack of it, is during the dry season. This is when the water level drops significantly and there is not enough water to even fill the canals, let alone to put out fires on peatlands as they occur.
This is the primary reason for the severe episodes of haze pollution in the region, and it should be clear why during these times everyone points the finger at someone else.
All in all, even the seemingly simple task of blocking canals raises many systemic issues that can be resolved only through sustained political leadership and government stewardship working closely with all stakeholders.
It is refreshing to hear President Joko frequently mention the ecosystem approach and his concern for widespread monoculture - dependence on a single species of commercial value - during the visit. Being trained in forestry, he knows what he is talking about, and that his symbolic act of canal blocking is not going to solve the problem.
As a former furniture businessman, he perfectly understands the importance of sustainable natural resource management and its huge contribution to the economy and employment.
Already he has merged the forestry and environment ministries to provide better coordination among environment and natural resources-related policies and implementation.
While the people of ASEAN may have to hold their breath a while longer, things are moving in the right direction in Indonesia as far as addressing forest fires and smoke haze is concerned.
This article was first published on Dec 15, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.