Fighting haze: Don't let plans go up in smoke

Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar speaking at the 8th meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

This week's ASEAN meeting to tackle the haze problem has a huge responsibility.

The immediate challenge is to deal with the recent thick haze from fires in Indonesia's Riau province that has choked neighbouring countries. But the significance of the meeting is far larger than that.

Known officially as the 15th Meeting of the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) on the Transboundary Haze Pollution, its role seems limited in scope.

But the ASEAN pact that gives the meeting purpose is not to be trifled with: Known as the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, it has a global importance.

According to the ASEAN Secretariat, this is the first regional arrangement in the world that binds a group of contiguous states to tackle transboundary haze pollution arising from land and forest fires.

Indeed, it is a "global role model" for tackling transboundary issues.

ASEAN has a well-developed haze masterplan harking back to the 1980s.

Obviously, the problem is not a lack of ideas and plans. A historical analysis of the haze issue will show how competent ASEAN has been in identifying the problem and mapping out a strategy.

Forest fires have been a feature of South-east Asia's ecology since the Great Ice Age.

Haze in Singapore & Malaysia
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: ST, TNP, The Star, AFP, Reuters)

More recently, recurring climate disturbances have made large areas of the region prone to large- scale wildfires.

Indeed, the land and forest fires that hit the ASEAN region in 1997 to 1998 were so severe that the United Nations labelled it "the most damaging in recorded history".

Fires in peat soils have been a major contributor to the haze, and Indonesia has about 70 per cent of the region's peatlands.

Apart from climatic factors, the haze phenomenon is the result of rapid demographic changes and increased human activity.

According to the secretariat's ASEAN Haze Action Online, the "pernicious practice of burning forests to clear land for commercial purposes and the extraordinarily dry weather combined to produce a pall of catastrophic proportions".

More than 9 million ha of land were burnt, 6.5 million ha of which were forested.

The haze is actually an old issue, with media reports of smoke blanketing Singapore dating back to the 1970s.

In June 1995, the region came up with an ASEAN Cooperation on Transboundary Pollution, which led to a Regional Haze Action Plan (RHAP). This plan set out collaborative measures among member states.

It had a three-fold objective: to prevent land and forest fires through better enforcement; to mitigate fires by strengthening regional fire-fighting capabilities; and to establish monitoring mechanisms.

Different countries were assigned to spearhead each prong, with Malaysia on prevention, Indonesia on mitigation and Singapore on monitoring.

The centrepiece of the RHAP monitoring is the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC).

Based in Singapore, the ASMC plays a leading role in long-range climate forecasting, early-warning activities and the detection and monitoring of fires and haze. The RHAP also formed the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control.

Member states in the sub-region - Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as well as Brunei and Thailand - undertake national- level action relating to the three prongs of prevention, mitigation and monitoring.

Implementation of the action plan at the sub-regional and regional levels serves to complement initiatives at the national level.

Significantly, the previous sub-regional meeting - the 14th Meeting of the Sub-Regional MSC on Transboundary Haze Pollution - took place just eight months ago in Bali.

This was seven months before the latest outbreak of the haze, which at one point last month reached 401 on Singapore's Pollutant Standards Index.

The Bali meeting reaffirmed the role of the ASMC and called for the use of technology to enhance hot-spot monitoring, including the "critical role of digital geo-referenced concession maps in efforts to hold plantation companies and land owners responsible".

The ministers also agreed that member states undertake more deterrent and effective enforcement measures against offenders.

At the same time, they agreed on the formation of an MSC Technical Task Force to develop a fire monitoring platform at the MSC level.

In the run-up to this week's MSC meeting, Singapore said it would seek several concrete outcomes, including the provision of accurate land concession maps that would help nail errant companies.

Singapore also wanted a clear launch date for the sub-regional haze monitoring system. This system is necessary to identify plantation companies that might have contributed to the peatland fires in Riau.

ASEAN and Indonesia have well-laid plans to counter the haze problem.

In fact, even before the latest event, Jakarta had budgeted up to 127 billion rupiah (S$16.5 million) for addressing land and forest fire issues at all levels. But given the scale of the problem, it is not certain that the money will be enough.

According to those familiar with the issue, there are three main problems: funding, implementation and sustainability at the provincial level.

With no financial incentives, the local authorities "just muddle along". Coordination across a huge area in Sumatra is also difficult.

In the end, a former senior ASEAN official told RSIS Commentaries, it is about sustainability. Without this, the vision of a haze-free ASEAN could become a pipe dream.

The writer is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies.