The Haze of Asia

With the AEC now in place, South­east Asia is set for in­creased re­gional in­te­gra­tion. But some is­sues stand in the way for op­ti­mal eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion; the re­cent haze from In­done­sia is one of them.

Norway-Asia Business Review - - Snapshots - SOFIE LISBY

Af­fect­ing millions of peo­ple pri­mar­ily in In­done­sia but also in Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore and Thai­land, the re­cent haze made head­lines around the world.

Su­topo Puro Nu­groho, the spokesper­son for the In­done­sian Me­te­o­rol­ogy, Cli­ma­tol­ogy and Geo­physics Agency (BMKG) called it a “crime against hu­man­ity” as 43 mil­lion peo­ple on the is­lands of Su­ma­tra and Kalimantan in­haled toxic fumes for months.

At its worst, lev­els of the Pol­lu­tant Stan­dard Index (PSI) pushed to­wards 2,000. Any­thing above 300 is con­sid­ered haz­ardous. In the be­gin­ning of Septem­ber 2015, the In­done­sian Na­tional Board for Dis­as­ter Man­age­ment (BNPB) de­clared a state of emer­gency in six prov­inces as schools closed and thou­sands of peo­ple were forced to leave.

The haze has been con­trib­uted to ex­ten­sive de­for­esta­tion, which in turn has been blamed on In­done­sia’s re­liance on palm oil. In­done­sia is the world’s largest pro­ducer, churn­ing out 33 mil­lion tonnes of the stuff in 2014. Palm oil plan­ta­tions cover al­most 11 mil­lion hectares of land – a num­ber which is ex­pected to in­crease sig­nif­i­cantly to­wards 2020 – and the in­dus­try em­ploys millions of peo­ple. As much as five per­cent of In­done­sia’s GDP come from palm oil pro­duc­tion and the in­dus­try ac­counts for as much as seven per­cent of to­tal ex­ports, ac­cord­ing to con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mates.

Ris­ing global de­mand drives palm oil pro­duc­tion in In­done­sia, who re­sponds by clear­ing valu­able for­est ar­eas for more plan­ta­tions. The most com­mon – and cheap­est and fastest – way to clear for­est land is by us­ing slas­hand-burn tech­niques, which can eas­ily run out of con­trol and spread. Pa­per and pulp pro­duc­tion are also cul­prits. Re­gional is­sue In­done­sia has strug­gled to con­tain its for­est fires for years and it is a re­oc­cur­ring is­sue that of­ten­times strain re­la­tions be­tween ASEAN mem­ber states. In Septem­ber 2014, fol­low­ing in­creased in­ter­na­tional pres­sure and calls for greater ac­count­abil­ity, In­done­sia rat­i­fied the ASEAN Agree­ment on Trans­bound­ary Haze Pol­lu­tion, the last coun­try to do so, more than a decade af­ter the agree­ment was first signed. The agree­ment calls on ASEAN mem­ber states to co­op­er­ate in the devel­op­ment and im­ple­men­ta­tion of mea­sures to pre­vent, mon­i­tor and mit­i­gate trans­bound­ary haze pol­lu­tion but so far lit­tle has been done.

The haze is also af­fect­ing neigh­bour­ing ASEAN coun­tries in­clud­ing Malaysia, Brunei, Sin­ga­pore and Thai­land. The south­ern part of Thai­land, home to sev­eral of the most pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tions, was badly af­fected with flights be­ing can­celled and peo­ple com­plain­ing about res­pi­ra­tory is­sues. Halem Je­mar­i­can, head of Songkhla prov­ince’s En­vi­ron­ment Of­fice called the situation a cri­sis, say­ing it was the worst in 10 years, ac­cord­ing to the AFP. “The key fac­tor is the wind. It’s strong at the hot spot ori­gins but when it reaches Thai­land the winds weaken so the haze stays around for longer,” he said. The news agency re­ported that Thai of­fi­cials said air qual­ity was at un­healthy lev­els in seven south­ern prov­inces. A num­ber of planes headed for Koh Sa­mui’s In­ter­na­tional Air­port were can­celled. Huge cost It is not just the tourism in­dus­try that is af­fected. By its own cal­cu­la­tions, the fires have cost the In­done­sian gov­ern­ment more than USD 30 bil­lion, tak­ing into ac­count the loss of crops, com­modi­ties and en­vi­ron­men­tal goods, in­creased health costs and other dis­rup­tions. And other coun­tries are claim­ing costs as well. Sin­ga­pore’s min­is­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment and wa­ter re­sources said: “This is not a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. Haze is a man-made prob­lem that should not be tol­er­ated. It has caused ma­jor im­pact on the health, so­ci­ety and econ­omy of our re­gion.” Sin­ga­pore passed a law in 2014 al­low­ing it to pros­e­cute peo­ple and firms that con­trib­ute to the haze.

With the AEC now in place, some hope for bet­ter re­gional co­op­er­a­tion on com­mon is­sues like the haze. But with a fo­cus on eco­nomic in­te­gra­tion rather than, say, po­lit­i­cal, solv­ing the un­der­ly­ing is­sues of the haze may prove dif­fi­cult. In the last few months we have seen some good ex­am­ples of why co­op­er­a­tion should span wider than just the econ­omy. The Ro­hingya cri­sis in April and May is a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of an is­sue that should be ad­dressed re­gion­ally. It in­volves a num­ber of ASEAN mem­ber states. The smog from the burn­ing of forests in In­done­sia is def­i­nitely a very se­ri­ous re­gional prob­lem, which is best ad­dressed re­gion­ally.”

Nor­way and Sin­ga­pore have ex­ten­sive trade re­la­tions and Sin­ga­pore has the largest con­cen­tra­tion of Nor­we­gian com­pa­nies and FDI in Asia. In 2010, as part of the United Na­tion­sanc­tioned Re­duc­ing Emis­sions from De­for­esta­tion and For­est Degra­da­tion (REDD+) pro­gram, Nor­way pledged to pro­vide In­done­sia USD 1 bil­lion to help make a tran­si­tion to sus­tain­able forestry and agri­cul­ture but progress has been slow.

It is clear that the haze is­sue is an in­ter­na­tional prob­lem that re­quires an in­ter­na­tional so­lu­tion. What ex­actly that so­lu­tion may be re­mains to be seen.


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