Skies free of haze, but burning need to solve problem of annual fires remains

KUALA LUMPUR - The skies are clear once again. The sun is shining through and there is even a smattering of rain.

However, the urgency to battle the problem of annual fires has not abated.

There is a determination, especially in Malaysia and Singapore, to persuade Indonesia, where most of the fires were, to accept responsibility and address the root causes of the burning.

This is top on the agenda of environment ministers from Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand who will meet on Wednesday.

They are expected to push for a solution to the annual problem that has plagued the region now for more than a decade.

The 15th meeting of the sub-regional ministerial steering committee (MSC) on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution that was scheduled for August was brought forward to this week after haze from forest fires in Sumatra and Riau blanketed parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in May.

The haze this time was severe and forced Malaysia to close down schools and declare a state of emergency in parts of the Peninsular.

Central to discussion is Indonesia's willingness to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution, a treaty that recognises haze a regional issue and thus has to be dealt with through concerted national efforts and international cooperation.

The countries agreed to cooperatively develop and implement measures to prevent, monitor and mitigate trans-boundary haze pollution by controlling sources of land or forest fires, the development of monitoring, assessment and early warning systems, the exchange of information and technology, and the provision of mutual assistance.

The problem is that Indonesia has refused to ratify the agreement.

The treaty came into force in 2003, but since then nothing has been done to stop the fires.

It has been an all-round blame game.

We did not start the fires, it's burning outside our concession area, we are not responsible for the fires, local communities are doing it, plantation companies are doing it, and so forth are the common responses.

Indonesia Environment Minister Dr Balthasar Kambuaya will be in the hot seat as he answers questions and levels some of his own.

The Washington-based World Research Institute undertook a series of studies of the forest fires and found that Indonesian forest fires are a long-standing issue.

Using Nasa satellite photos, the institute found that the fires in June were one of the worst on record since 2001.

The fires typically spike between June and September, with approximately 8,343 fires detected through June 24, 2013, a significantly higher number compared to previous years.

The increasing number of fires is a serious issue and is often related to land clearing for major commodity plantations.

These contributes to climate change, air pollution and are very detrimental to the health of people in the region.

Although forest fires are endemic in Sumatra and typically goes unnoticed, changes in wind and air movement blow the smoke to other countries in the region.

The fires' impact on Singapore and Malaysia have been dramatic, with the Air Pollutant Index averaging over 400, a level considered hazardous to health.

The short of the story is that forest fires in Indonesia are common, but wind patterns are bringing the choking smoke to neighbours, thus focusing unprecedented international attention to this endemic problem.

That's why Wednesday's meeting is important.

Burning is illegal in Indonesia but this has been poorly enforced.

Indonesian government leaders, communities, and companies must use this event as an opportunity to work together nationally, regionally, and locally to understand the root causes and put them out.

Instead of pointing fingers ASEAN ministers must work together to see that the fires in Indonesia are not repeated come June next year.

At the very least, the people expect this from them.

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