ASEAN back on track to fight haze

File Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry (2nd R), Singapore's K Shanmugam (L), Vietnam's Pham Binh Minh (2nd L) and Brunei's Mohammad Bolkiah (R) pose for a group photo during the ASEAN Ministers Meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan on July 2, 2013.

BRUNEI - ASEAN is back on track to tackle the haze issue with all 10 members on board as part of the solution, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told The Straits Times on Tuesday at the close of meetings with his counterparts.

He praised the ASEAN spirit and pointed to good "building blocks" that have been put in place to tackle the air pollution which plagues the region around this time each year. The source of the problem is the Indonesian farmers and plantation companies which resort to fire to clear their land.

In the past three weeks, the haze hit Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei, and the amount of pollutants in the air rose to dangerous levels in many of these countries. But air quality has since returned to the good-to-moderate range after sustained firefighting efforts by Indonesia in the past week.

Tuesday, Dr Marty said after four days of meetings: "We're back on track in terms of all presenting themselves as part of the solution. It's about partnership, it's about working closely together, communicating, understanding what the problems are."

On Sunday, ASEAN directed its senior officials to both consolidate current initiatives to combat the haze and recommend steps to prevent a recurrence.

A joint communique issued after the 10 foreign ministers met also stated that a progress report on anti-haze efforts would be sent to the top leaders at the next ASEAN summit in October.

The grouping also reaffirmed its commitment to establish effective monitoring, rapid response and firefighting systems. It called on countries which have not ratified a 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution - Indonesia is the only one - to do so "expeditiously".

The challenge now is in implementing what has been discussed, Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam has acknowledged. Asked when he expects to get clarity on whether Singapore-linked firms are involved in the burning - a diplomatic note was conveyed to Indonesia a week ago - he said he is still waiting for Indonesia to respond.

"The Indonesians have said that they are investigating, and they are not sure whether any Singapore companies are involved," he said on Tuesday.

Since the weekend, there has been a significant drop in the number of hot spots in Riau, from 262 a week ago to four on Sunday. Disaster officials say they are shifting into preventive mode, to respond faster and put out the fires before they spread out of control.

Tackling transboundary issues such as the haze involved "a lot of painstaking and consistent effort", Dr Marty said, and required work at the national, regional and international level.

"Thankfully, after those efforts, we are beginning to see results on the ground," he added.

limze@sph.com.sg

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