Southeast Asia’s top environmental officials are questioning the likelihood of seeing the region haze-free by 2020 as smoke from Indonesian forest fires continues to reduce visibility and increase health worries.
ASEAN members signed an agreement on transboundary haze pollution in 2002, which went into force in 2003. It binds the bloc to tackle transboundary haze pollution resulting from land and forest fires.
“The vision of haze free ASEAN by 2020 is approaching,” Cambodia’s Minister of Environment, Say Samal said today, as the nation hosts the four-day 15th ASEAN Ministerial meeting in Siem Reap, near the Angkor Wat temple. “As we move closer to this target date, we need to step up our efforts, and work collectively and progressively to prevent transboundary smoke haze pollution.”
“But based on what we have experienced so far, it is well understood that an individual country would not be able to solve the problem,” he added. “We should enhance our cooperation for the implementation of ASEAN agreement on transboundary haze pollution.”
As of October 3, the Indonesian 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.
Almost every year, Indonesian forest fires spread unhealthy 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 clearing land for planting. Many areas of Indonesia are prone to rapid burning due to drainage issues in pulp-wood forests and palm oil plantations.
Raffles Panjaitan, director of Indonesia’s Forest and Land Fire Management, asked that ASEAN members understand the country’s demographics, which complicate its response to the fires. There are 300 distinct ethnic and linguistic groups, meaning the island nation has many cultures even though largest and most dominant in terms of politics are the Javanese at over 40% of the population.
He said that his government has reduced the incidence of fires since 2015, which the fires burnt 2.6 million hectares of land, compared 438,000 hectares burned nationwide as of this week, a reduction of more than 80 percent.
“This means Indonesia is really committed to handling and combating the fires in Indonesia,” he told VOA Khmer after one of the meetings. The other member nations understood Jakarta’s position, he added, saying “The important thing is how to cooperate regionally.”
Panjaitan said his government has deployed all possible reassurance to fight the fires.
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa said Thailand has tried to combat current haze in the northern part of the country, and officials will visit the area on Thursday to discuss ways to prevent haze in the future.
Whether the cause is related to agriculture or other sources of air pollution, the Thai minister said the nation is committed to minimizing haze situation, he told VOA Khmer after the meeting.
“Different countries have different ways of life, they have different traditions,” he said, adding that combating haze “doesn’t depend on tradition, doesn’t depend on culture.”
“So it is very important that each country educates, and informs their people, their farmers, their agriculture sectors of the danger that the haze pollution is causing,” he added.
“If each country goes back and really tries to mitigate the issue, I am sure ASEAN will be able to commit” to [be] haze-free [by] 2020,” he said.
Neth Pheaktra, spokesman for the Environment Ministry of Cambodia, said each member has provided “constructive criticism” and agreed to work with each other more to combat haze issue.
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.
“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.