Temporary showers have afforded some reprieve for the extended dry season which have brought haze to the region beyond Indonesia.
September has been one of the highest hotspot months this year (since the worst haze episode of 1997), and the haze hazard has generated a new wave of discontent amongst the affected states and their peoples.
Airports are being re-opened, people are resuming their usual daily outdoor activities, and monitoring stations are reporting cleaner air pollution indices. According to Singapore Environment and Water Resources Minister Yaacob Ibrahim, haze-free days are in the immediate horizon.
Yet, vigilance and concrete action plans to prevent further episodes should remain the order of the day. Regional political will to combat the haze, while unprecedented in recent months, hangs in the balance as Indonesia has yet to ratify the ASEAN Transboundary Haze Agreement (2002). Resource shortages and governance problems associated with decentralization in Indonesia also hampered effective responses to the problem.
The country’s recent international credibility boost with the United Nations Security Council lies in stark contrast to regional pressures from neighbouring states for more responsible environmental governance, and internal conflicts within the domestic polity at the environmental diplomacy front.
The public sphere is also experiencing a general sense of disillusionment. The popular local news magazine Tempo reported in an October 4-11 poll that 85 per cent of the 335 respondents believed that the government had not been serious in dealing with the ongoing haze problem. Only about 11.5 per cent thought that it was serious, while 3 per cent were unsure.
Mr Tri Budiarto, head of the Office of Environmental Management Agency in West Kalimantan also commented that local people and government leaders “have grown immune to the problem”. “Six years ago, they screamed and worked together to put the fire out. Now, even when the air quality reaches dangerous levels, they tolerate it,” he added.
Following the Sub-Regional Ministerial Meeting on Transboundary Haze Pollution in Pekanbaru on October 13, an inter-governmental regional workshop will be held this week to explore new measures to tackle the haze, before the ASEAN ministerial meeting on the environment in Cebu on November 9-10.
Minister Yaacob commented that the objective of the workshop would be to “draw upon international experience and come up with a plan of action which is long-term.” “At the end of the day, I think we have to look at fire prevention because that's the better course of action so it will mean plans to work with the farmers, plans to work with the plantation owners and how they can use land-clearing methods and at the same time, helping farmers who may want to move to a different form of livelihood if the current livelihood is not sustainable, in terms of the environmental effects,” he added.
Other recommendations to prevent further haze episodes abound in the media, albeit to the point of cacophony, as they contribute to blame-pushing and misunderstanding of the layers of issues involved.
A recently-held Dialogue on Southeast Asian Fires and Haze in Singapore on October 19 saw a concerted effort to offer sound recommendations by 20 NGOs and think tanks from the region, including Indonesia.
Chaired by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) Chairman Simon Tay, the Dialogue called attention to the fires in Indonesia, as a matter of regional and global significance. It warned that future fires may well recur and potentially be more severe and damaging in scale and duration. Indonesia thus need to take immediate and appropriate actions to mitigate the present fires and prevent future fires, and to ratify and implement the ASEAN Haze Agreement.
It also called for coordinated action among the regional countries and ASEAN and urged member states to consider making contributions and pledges to the Haze Control Fund under the ASEAN Haze Agreement, in tandem with Indonesia’s ratification and implementation of the Haze Agreement. The dialogue participants also emphasized the need for attention and help from the international community and organizations.
The Dialogue noted that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can contribute to solutions to the fires and called for greater coordination between NGOs working in Indonesia, the region and at the international level. It also called for a study to reliably estimate the economic costs of the haze and fires.
Chairman’s Statement: Dialogue on the Southeast Asian Fires and Haze (19 October 2006)
Haze is expected to clear at the end of the month: Yaacob Ibrahim (Channel News Asia, 20 October 2006)
Indonesia's local leaders 'not up to fighting fires' (The Straits Times, 26 October 2006)
Rain clears haze in SE Asia, Indonesia airports open (The Straits Times, 27 October 2006)
Rain helps clear haze in region (The Straits Times, 28 October 2006)
Jakarta not serious about fighting haze: Poll (The Straits Times, 28 October 2006)