Haze Over Western ASEAN: Not Only A Tourism Killer But Also A ‘Crime Against Humanity’

Persistent haze over more than two months due to forest fires in Sumatra and in Indonesian Borneo are not only disrupting travel and tourism in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore but are also affecting the health of half a million people in the region.

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Every year, the same nightmare occurs in the Western part of ASEAN. Fires set up by individuals and companies to clear up forests to make way for mostly palm oil concessions plunge Indonesia as well as neighbouring Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and even Southern Thailand into a thick haze. Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam have also been partially affected.

For thousands of years, slash-and-burn agriculture has been the way in Asia to renew agriculture production. However, it has reached an unknown dimension today due to industrial-scale deforestation at an unprecedented level.

Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer and this title unfortunately translates into toxic clouds, smoke and extremely poor visibility. Consequently it causes havoc every year with schools being closed, hospitals filled with sick people, flights being interrupted and events cancelled. Kuala Lumpur marathon has been cancelled while the first day of the 2015 FINA Swimming World Cup had to be cancelled in Singapore. Back to 2013, fires in Riau province in Indonesia caused Singapore’s worst air pollution on record in history.

The haze is not only affecting travel and tourism but also the environment. The disappearance of the rainforest in Kalimantan and Sumatra is a threat to endemic species such as the Orang Utan. Animals are fleeing the suffocating atmosphere causing further damage to an already fragile eco-system.

Health of the population has been already at stake with experts estimating that some 500,000 people are affected this year by respiratory infections due to the haze while 43 million are inhaling toxic smoke. Some now labels the haze a “crime against humanity”.

2015 might be remembered as one of the worst years ever for haze due to an exceptionally dry season due to the El Nino phenomenon. The Pollutant Standard Index reached on some days 2,000 and hit even a record high of 3,300in Central Kalimantan on October 24. A Pollutant Standard Index of 300 is already considered as hazardous!

Six Indonesian provinces have declared a State of Emergency while Malaysia in September closed schools in Kuala Lumpur and neighbouring states around the capital. Malaysia sent in September cloud-seeding aircraft to trigger rain over Kuala Lumpur and Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo.

The worrying situation was highlighted during the meeting of ASEAN Environment Ministers on Thursday (Oct 29) in Hanoi. They expressed their concern over the “unprecedented severity and geographical spread” of the recent smoke haze affecting the region and expressed sympathy to the millions of people affected by the haze.

The Ministers reaffirmed the importance of the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, and agreed to step up cooperation to effectively implement this in its entirety. “The Ministers are committed to develop an ASEAN Haze-Free Roadmap which is an action-oriented and time-bound framework for ASEAN Member States to achieve the vision of Haze-Free ASEAN by 2020,” they stated in a release.

So far, efforts done by the government to control the situation and put a halt to criminal fires activities did not have an effect. A moratorium on concessions for palm oil companies has been declared by Indonesian President Joko Widodo as already close to six million ha of lands have been attributed. Environment reports suggests that 85% of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions stem today from land-use activities.

As 2015 persistent drought made the situation worse in Kalimantan and Sumatra, the Indonesian President sent 22,000 soldiers and 30 aircraft to fight fires while financial and material help has been provided by Malaysia, Singapore and Japan. The ASEAN initiative for a Haze Free ASEAN by 2020 is excellent news. But how far can it be implemented, especially as information and prevention campaigns are almost non-existent, particularly in Indonesia. A local journalist in fact was wondering why there has been no national campaign to highlight the danger and prevent fires to spread again in Borneo and Sumatra.

ASEAN Environments Ministers recognised the need for ASEAN Member States to revisit their respective national plan of action in order to effectively address the land and forest fires that cause haze in the region- a diplomatic statement which underlines the inefficiency of the current system.

The damage seems irreversible as it has consequences for human life, environment, travel and tourism and local economies. Indonesia estimates that haze will cost the country some US$30 billion to mitigate just for 2015. Not to talk about the damage done to the image of Indonesia and the entire region. Who would like indeed to come to a region where his or her health could be at stake during three to four months every year?