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ASEAN Environmental Ministers to Examine Regional Haze Issue

Cambodia hosts the four-day 15th ASEAN Ministerial meeting in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on October 7, 2019. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Cambodia hosts the four-day 15th ASEAN Ministerial meeting in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on October 7, 2019. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

A month after Indonesian forest fires endanger health, force school closures and health warnings, ASEAN experts aim to address annual problem during meeting in Siem Reap.

Top officials of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will discuss haze pollution this week as smoke from Indonesian forest fires in Indonesia worries governments throughout the region.

As of October 3, the forest fires, mostly on Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, have burned 328,000 hectares (810,505 acres), according to Mongabay, an environmental news outlet.

Last month, during the worst of the fires, as Malaysia’s ruling party leader Anwar Ibrahim called the haze “ecological warfare,” it blanketed Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s largest city, and Singapore. UNICEF reported that nearly 10 million children in Indonesia alone were at risk from air pollution.

“It is a very important issue in ASEAN right now,” said Neth Pheaktra, spokesman for the Environment Ministry of Cambodia, the nation hosting the four-day 15th ASEAN Ministerial meeting in Siem Reap, near the Angkor Wat temple.

“We want to find a mechanism to manage the issue of transboundary haze ... [we] want to find ways to prevent forest fires and the haze without pointing fingers or making accusations.”

Almost every year, Indonesian forest fires spread health-damaging haze across the country and into neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.

In 2015, Indonesian forest fires were linked to 100,000 deaths in the region, according to a study by experts from Harvard and Columbia universities.

The fires are often started by smallholders and plantation owners to clear land for planting. Many areas of Indonesia are prone to rapid burning due to drainage issues in pulp-wood forests and palm oil plantations.

Dr Mohd Yusoff Ishak, a sustainability expert at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) in Seri Kembangan, Malaysia, said there should be more preventive measures taken regarding forest fires and the haze in Indonesia.

Last month, Indonesia initially rebuffed offers by Singapore and Malaysia to help with firefighting.

“We should do more than just predicting the timing of the haze,” he said. “We should treat the haze the same as other natural disasters like tsunami, the earthquakes etc, which we allow foreign assistance, though it is a human need disaster, but the killing is very broad and it affects the neighboring countries.”

Also on the agenda for the Siem Reap gathering on regional environmental cooperation are issues such as climate change, environmentally sustainable cities, biodiversity conservation, preserving coastal and marine environments, environmental education, water resource management, and chemical and hazardous waste management, according to a press release from Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment.

The meeting is expected to adopt three key documents: the draft of an ASEAN Joint Statement on Climate Change, the draft and ASEAN Strategic Plan on the Environment, and the request to designate five national parks in Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam as ASEAN Heritage Parks, according to the release.

Cambodia is also hosting the 16th ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and South Korea) Environment Ministers Meeting, and the ASEAN-Japan Ministerial Dialogue on the Environmental Cooperation this week.