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.
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.