Indonesian haze: An Asean integration too far? — Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli

Tuesday, 15 Sep 2015 02:27 PM MYT

SEPTEMBER 15 — It’s that time of the year again! If the stunning skylines of New York, Tokyo and Frankfurt are enveloped with misty fog giving them an amazing wintery atmosphere every year-end, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have a more or less similar scenario — only that these cities are not cloaked with fog but instead blanketed with extremely unhealthy smog.

The Indonesian haze problem has been plaguing this region for almost two decades. The worst that has hit the region so far was in 1997 with hazardous smoke engulfing Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei and Singapore. After 1997, this uninvited phenomenon visited Southeast Asia for a few more years mainly in 1999, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2015. Without doubt, this environmental disaster continues to haunt Southeast Asia until today.

Asean integration

Ever since its inception in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (Asean) has made a somewhat steady progress towards fostering a better co-operation between its 10 member states. The year 2015 is celebrated as a year where Asean member states are anticipating to successfully create an Asean Community through Asean integration.

While Asean has moved towards integration in certain aspects, this process is still far from reality. The unending haze problem is a manifestation that Asean as a community, has failed to work together to provide good quality environment for millions of its citizens.

Although the 1997 Haze Crisis prompted Asean countries to come up with the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution on June 10, 2002, this arrangement had, for the next 13 years, failed to reach its objective.

Southeast Asian haze problem

The yearly occurrence of the Southeast Asian haze is mainly caused by slash and burn techniques adopted by farmers in Indonesia. This method has been extensively practised as it is the cheapest and easiest means to clear the lands for traditional agriculture.

Forest fires created through this technique caused hotspots, or zones with high temperature levels as seen via satellite imagery in Malaysia and Indonesia. Although there are forest fires too in Malaysia, lingering smoke originated primarily from hotspots located in the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo are identified as the main cause of haze.

The scarcity of rainfall particularly during the dry season worsen this already-acute situation. Fire may also be intentionally utilised as an apparatus to claim ownership of lands on these Indonesian islands where land ownership is not clear. This method is still practised by both smallholders and large operators alike.

Countries that are affected by the haze epidemic experienced an increase of acute health outcomes among their citizens diagnosed primarily with asthma, upper respiratory infection, decreased lung function as well as eye and skin irritation.

A significant number of population in Southeast Asia, particularly in remote Indonesian provinces, do not have the financial means to purchase protective measures such as respiratory masks and air conditioning, nor are they able to refrain from outdoor work when air pollution is high.

Malaysia’s multi-billion tourism industries that accounted for about seven per cent of the country’s economy every year could also be adversely affected by haze. Singapore too, depends on its thriving tourism industry that contributed about S$5 billion (RM15.37 billion) to the national economy in 2013.

Overcoming the haze problem

Indonesia has apologised to its neighbours for the haze problems engulfing Southeast Asia.

Obviously, a mere apology does not change anything. Pin-pointing is also not the best way to overcome this problem. For years, some fractions of the Indonesian public have been blaming the Malaysian and Singaporean corporations operating in Indonesia for causing haze.

Nevertheless, they have to realise that this “slash and burn” practice has been taking place neither in Malaysia nor Singapore but within the territory of Indonesia. The Indonesian government is the one with power to take actions against recalcitrant corporations responsible for causing tremendous deterioration of air quality across this region.

Despite the failure of Asean to achieve integration by the year 2015 as initially planned, Asean countries have, in the past been successful in working together as a team. This is demonstrated in their effort of combating piratical activities in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore.

A decade ago, piratical activities were so rampant in these waters resulting in the Joint War Committee (JWC) of Lloyd’s Market Association to declare the Strait of Malacca as a war risk area beginning in July 2005; a declaration that put the Strait on par with other well-known war zones such as the waters off the war-stricken countries of Somalia, Iraq and Lebanon.

Realising the adverse effects of piratical activities, the three littoral States of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have introduced a number of collaborative measures such as the Tripartite Technical Expert Group (TTEG) both in safety of navigation and maritime security, Trilateral Coordinated Patrols Malacca Straits (MALSINDO), Eyes in the Sky (EIS) and the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) to combat piracy and maritime terrorism in the Straits.

The joint measures have significantly improved security and reduced the risks of pollution to the marine environment in the Straits.

Asean could emulate the effective and successful co-operation shown in the TTEG to overcome the current haze problem. It is true that the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution has provided a basis of co-operation on this matter but this has yet to be fully materialised.

As nations that are vulnerable to this yearly haze phenomenon, it is crucial for Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia to work together as a team to tackle this predicament.

A way forward

Haze is a problem that is impinging the quality of life of millions of people residing all across Southeast Asia. As the main cause of haze originates from Indonesia, the central government in Jakarta must act firmly against environmental offenders.

Asean embraces the principle of non-interference and obviously, Putrajaya and Singapore could not directly interfere in the domestic affairs of the government of Indonesia.

Although both Malaysian and Singaporean corporations may be involved in causing this environmental disaster, Indonesia must take lead in overcoming this problem as these polluting particles emanated from their soil. Asean could only assist Indonesia by pulling their resources together. Obviously, apology is not sufficient to alleviate the sufferings of those affected.

Without strong political will from the administration of President Joko Widodo to end this environmental quagmire, Asean countries may have to brace themselves to continuously greet the unwelcomed smog in years to come.

* Dr Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia. He is also a visiting professor at the School of Law, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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