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Southeast Asia's haze problem

Gabriel DomínguezSeptember 15, 2015

Smog-belching forest fires in Indonesia have raised air pollution levels across Southeast Asia, leaving tens of thousands of people ill and prompting disruption to air travel. But what is fueling the fires? DW examines.

Singapur Dunst nach Waldbränden
Image: Reuters/E. Su

As thick haze from forest and bush fires worsen air quality across northern Indonesia, neighboring Singapore and parts of Malaysia, Indonesia has declared a state of emergency in Sumatra's Riau province. Authorities said on September 14 that pollution levels had become "dangerously" high in the provincial capital where over 25,000 people are believed to have been affected.

Health posts have been set up to treat those suffering respiratory problems and the government has deployed an additional 1,600 military personnel to fight the fires. The deteriorating air quality has also led to the closing of schools in several Malaysian states, the cancelation of some flights due to poor visibility, and "very unhealthy" air pollution levels in Singapore as the city-state prepares to host this weekend's annual Formula One night race.

The authorities in the affected countries have also advised people to wear face masks outdoors and limit unnecessary outdoor activity. Malaysia and Indonesia also said they would deploy aircraft to water-bomb the raging blazes and conduct "cloud-seeding" operations to induce rain. According to Guido van der Werf at VU University Amsterdam, for this time of September, satellite fire detections across Indonesia are the highest since 2003 when those records began.

The 'El Niño' factor

Although Indonesia is normally one of the rainiest places in the world, climate experts say the fires have been exacerbated this year by the effects of the "El Niño" weather phenomenon - a change in ocean and atmosphere patterns in the Pacific which has drawn rain away from the archipelago.

"El Niño generally causes drier conditions over Southeast Asia and Australia, and the effects vary with the seasons," Robert Field, a Columbia University Associate Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told DW.

The thick, dirty, white haze that has blanketed parts of Southeast Asia is not a new phenomenon. Indonesia has struggled for years to contain the fires which not only release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere but also affect wildlife, the rain forest as well as the quality of life and economy of local residents and neighboring countries.

A man-made problem

The fires are usually man-made and caused by firms and smallholder farmers who engage in illegal slash-and-burn practices as a relatively inexpensive means to clear and prepare vast tracts of land in Indonesia's Sumatra and Kalimantan islands.

One difficulty facing local authorities is determining who exactly is behind the burning and who is responsible for the land on which it occurs. The other major challenge, said Field, is that peat fires burn underground and are hence "incredibly difficult to extinguish once they've started."

According to NASA’s Active Fire Data on the Global Forest Watch Fires platform, half of the fire alerts in Indonesia's Riau Province recently occurred in protected zones or in areas where new development is prohibited under the country's national forest moratorium.

Lack of political will?

Following increased pressure and calls for greater accountability, Jakarta finally ratified last September the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution, which requires the parties involved to implement measures to prevent, monitor, and mitigate this kind of pollution. Yet, it seems that regional governments are still struggling to find a lasting solution to the problem.

According to Jan Seifert and Andreas Ufen, Asia experts at the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute, there are a number of reasons why Jakarta has failed to tackle the issue.

These include limited political will to sanction big entrepreneurs and smallholders, a limited capacity to access and protect the areas involved, weak coordination between ministries as well as between central and local governments, and weak law enforcement due to police, administrative and political party corruption in Indonesia.

"The challenge is all too often that existing laws are not implemented and that government capacity generally is low," said Seifert. For instance, although a special forest protection enforcement agency was foreseen in an anti-illegal logging law, it has yet to materialize due to "institutional power plays between the police and different ministries," said the expert.

Economic interests

But there are also economic interests involved, as Siegfried Herzog, head of the regional office of the German foundation Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung in Bangkok, explained. "Slash-and-burn agricultural practices have become increasingly attractive for people in these areas, given a rise in palm oil demand driven by the bio-fuel policies of some developed countries," said Herzog.

The analyst also criticized nationalist and protectionist policies by successive Indonesian governments for failing to diversify the local economy which, in turn, has led to almost no other comparatively lucrative sources of income for small farmers in the area.

In addition, opaque bureaucracy has made it easier for big companies to engage in illegal burning activities on their land, stressed Herzog. "And since these companies tend to be well-connected, they often go unpunished," he added.

A significant impact

However, it has become increasingly difficult for regional governments to justify why they tolerate these practices. The haze problem has had a significant economic impact on the region, not only due to flight cancelations and a spike in medical costs, but also because of the destruction of the rain forest and damage to crops and vegetation.

Moreover, as GIGA expert Ufen told DW, "there are fewer people going to work in the smoke-choked regions as 15.000 residents in Riau, 23,000 in South Sumatra and 40,000 in South Kalimantan have suffered from respiratory infections this year alone."

Analysts such as Herzog even fear the haze issue issue may impact the attractiveness of neighboring Singapore - ranked as one of world's most expensive cities - as a place to live and work in.

Indonesien Dunst Rauch Qualm Smog
Authorities have advised people to wear face masks outdoors and limit unnecessary outdoor activityImage: Reuters/Beawiharta

Although Indonesia's neighbors have pressurized Jakarta to deal with the issue, analysts point out that cross-border cooperation in the ASEAN region remains "not too well developed", and that local concerns continue to trump a common agenda.

This raises the question as to whether Indonesia can muster the political will anytime soon to establish reliable institutions of governance that can enforce basic environmental laws and hold offenders legally and financially liable.

In the end, it seems Indonesians themselves will have to find an answer to this as it is mainly they who face the consequences of the illegal slash-and-burn practices - not only in terms of health, but also the environment and economy.