Transboundary haze: Asean needs to act
THE HAZE from forest fires in Indonesia has been a problem not just within its shores, but also an annual environmental, health and diplomatic issue with two other countries—Malaysia and Singapore.
This year, we may have to add another country to the list—the Philippines—where Cebu has been blanketed by smog over the past week. Media reports have highlighted the possibility that the haze affecting the province has been blown over from Sumatra.
While there is still debate on the origins of the pollution in Cebu, it is clear that containing the huge fires in Indonesia has become a cyclical problem.
It usually starts off with complaints of the lack of firefighting resources, followed by rejections of offers to help. Accusations fly of parties responsible for starting the fires. More often than not, it ends with the announcement of a regional joint agreement to fight haze.
Yet, when the haze is blown away, the political will to follow through dissipates. And the cycle resumes when the haze returns the following year.
Although the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has taken some steps, it has been largely ineffective in ensuring that the haze does not recur.
Two years have passed since Asean adopted a joint monitoring system for locating fire hotspots, but what remains is an empty shell with governments reluctant to share map data.
Asean took 11 long years to get Indonesia to sign the transboundary haze treaty, a comprehensive action plan that was signed by the other nations in 2003. That is more than a decade’s worth of time that could have been spent on developing resources to combat haze.
Whatever the culpability of the planters, plantations or governments, the priority is to put out the fire and deal with everything else later. The economic cost of not doing so is high, and containing the fire isn’t cheap.
In the United States, it costs about US$14.3 million (about P660 million) of firefighting equipment, resources and professionals to fight a 3,000-hectare wildfire, the same size as the land burned by the Riau blaze, which caused the infamous 2013 haze in Malaysia and Singapore.
This includes support professionals (such as smokejumpers and firefighters), sensor-equipped early-warning aircraft directing aerial and ground-based firefighting efforts, and air tankers that can unleash water and fire retardants.
If Asean does not have these critically needed assets to fight its perennial wildfires, its most affected members–Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and perhaps now the Philippines–should start acquiring them.
If costs are a concern, instead of an outright purchase, perhaps leasing options from countries such as the US may be explored.
The formation of a regional joint fire brigade is needed to put out the fire. The training, staffing and maintenance of that brigade can be shared by the multiple agencies involved in fighting fires in these countries. Assistance can also be provided by wealthy donor countries and organizations interested in protecting the environment.
Of course, any multicountry firefighting exercise will need the resources and support of neighbors such as Malaysia and Singapore, along with Indonesia’s consent–the good news is that this has been done before. “Operation Haze” in September 1997 was the biggest cross-border firefighting mission in history. It involved teams of Malaysian and Indonesian firefighters battling haze-causing fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
But apart from the aforementioned firefighting equipment and fire brigade, it will take a combination of enforceable legislation and political will that Asean can adopt to eliminate haze. Professor Ivan Png from the National University of Singapore Business School has highlighted that international law has provisions for transboundary environmental and criminal liability.
The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act in Singapore allows entities causing or contributing to unhealthy levels of haze in the island state to be fined up to S$2 million (about P65 million). This means that Singapore can prosecute its plantation owners who commit arson outside the country.
Following this and taking a leaf from the UN Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, where government negotiations are focused on collective problem solving, Asean can take a bold move by mooting a common set of laws that address the region’s interests in the environment and general well-being. Violators can be referred to an EU-style Asean Court of Justice.
It has also been suggested that a plantation agency equivalent to the successful Oil Spill Response Limited agency be formed, whose responsibility will be to respond effectively to wildfires on plantation land wherever they may occur. This way, the various regional government agencies and industry players, such as this plantation-owned firefighting cooperative, can form a transboundary force to fight plantation fires.
Given that most commercial plantations, despite their denials, prefer to use fire (“slash and burn”) for cost-related reasons and to avoid apprehension, a mandated industry-owned cooperative to fight fires is highly warranted. Asean’s members will need to join hands to ensure this outcome. Since the ASEAN Secretariat’s stated mission is to “initiate, facilitate and coordinate Asean stakeholder collaboration,” it is the natural choice for commanding the regional joint fire brigade.
It is clear that to address the transboundary haze problem, we need to disabuse ourselves of the belief that garden hoses, cloud-seeding and a couple of light scooper helicopters with buckets can fight the fires of the magnitude we have seen.
The acquisition or leasing of firefighting air tankers, coupled with the efficient deployment of extensive material and human firefighting assets, comprehensive and enforceable legislation, close regional diplomatic cooperation, political will and finally, common sense, will help the region get through the present and future fires.
The outlook is not hazy. But if four members of Asean are not able to address a recurring and predictable problem, what hope does the region have for economic integration with the Asean Economic Community that is going to be finalized at the end of this year?
Joseph Cherian is practice professor of finance and director of the Center for Asset Management Research and Investments, Jack Loo is associate editor of Think Business (thinkbusiness.nus.edu), Ang Swee Hoon is associate professor of marketing at the National University of Singapore Business School, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
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