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Regional efforts on the transboundary haze and other emerging concerns

Updated On: Oct 17, 2006

The latest haze updates continue to report of moderate to unhealthy pollution indices in SingaporeMalaysia and Indonesia. Flight cancellations and health warnings are becoming daily affairs in parts of Indonesia

Malaysia suffered bad tourism publicity from the foreign media for the haze. Recent reports also reveal loss of wildlife in the country, such as fireflies that are the main draw of eco-tourism.  As for Singapore, according to Assoc Prof Euston Quah, head of the Division of Economics at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), it has suffered an estimated loss of US$50 million ($79 million) since the haze began to cloud the skies early last month.

The affected states gathered on October 13 in Pekanbaru on the island of Sumatra at the Asean Environment Ministers Special Meeting on Regional Haze. A released statement after the talks revealed that ‘the meeting respectfully urged Indonesia to urgently finalise the ratification of the Asean agreement on trans-boundary haze pollution in accordance with its national law'.

Environment minister Rachmat Witoelar said during the meeting that Indonesia would do its best to fight the fires raging on Sumatra and Kalimantan but the government’s decentralized bureaucracy has meant battling the fires was 'not a simple task'. 'We are open to suggestions that will increase our effectiveness in suppressing current and future fires, and we welcome assistance from within and outside the region to overcome this dreadful problem which affects millions of lives,' he added.

Indonesia also announced an expenditure of nearly US$11 million to put out the fires, through planes and cloud-seeding operations. Further, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said the National Disaster Management Coordinating Board (Bakornas) would be restructured to improve coordination with local administrations for a swifter response to the fires.

The meeting also witnessed an agreement to set up a high-powered regional panel of environment ministers from the affected countries to ensure the implementation of anti-haze plans. A regional workshop will also be held in Indonesia next month aimed at looking into new measures to tackle the problem. The workshop outcome will be submitted to the Asean Ministerial Minister’s of Environment summit in Cebu the following month as well.  

President SBY had said prior to the meeting that Indonesia would ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution signed in 2002, but did not provide any time frame for the process. Without ratifying the treaty, Indonesia is unable to draw from Malaysia’s initiative to set up a joint fund to tackle the haze. Currently, internal disputes and finger-pointing between the administration and Parliament continue to stall the ratification. The former had submitted the haze agreement for Parliament's approval early this year, but legislators have been reluctant to approve it.

Mr Agusman Effendy, the head of the parliamentary committee in charge of the environment, said his commission is still studying it. 'We need to be prepared in anticipating fires before we ratify such an agreement - we don't want it to backfire,' the member of the ruling Golkar party told The Straits Times. His deputy in the committee, Mr Sonny Keraf, also gave the reason that the treaty would favour Malaysia and Singapore over Indonesia.

Nationalistic comments such as these are also rising in the face of regional criticisms. A report in ST today (17 Oct) noted that Indonesians are closing ranks in the face of mounting external pressures. Critics of the haze have now fallen back on nationalist arguments “alleging that countries complaining about the haze have also been found wanting when it comes to cross-border issues”. Criticisms against Singapore have been particularly harsh with the perception that PM Lee was “dictating what Indonesia should be doing” and the media has drawn in the issue of the bilateral extradition treaty as example that Singapore also drags its feet on issues in which its interests are affected.  

Elsewhere, Malaysia revealed a stronger stance against Malaysian companies, if found to be culpable for illegal logging and oil palm cultivation. Natural Resources and Environmental Minister Datuk Seri Azmi Khalid told reporters on October 14 that "if the (Indonesian) courts find them (Malaysian companies) responsible, they should be punished accordingly. We (Malaysian government) will not interfere with the Indonesian judicial process. In fact, we will support it.”

The Indonesian army has also promised to make troops available to help civilian authorities fight the fires that have caused the haze. During a visit to Central Kalimantan on October 15, army chief Djoko Santoso told reporters he had ordered army units stationed in the affected areas to respond to requests for help by local administrations. The army will also establish an early fire detection system together with the provincial administrations.

While environmental diplomacy has reached a peak in Southeast Asia concerning the transboundary haze, a recent report elsewhere may pose further environmental and security concerns for Indonesia and its neighbours.  The report highlighted that Russian electricity company Raoues is slated to build Indonesia's first nuclear power plant in Gorontalo, Sulawesi by end of 2007, in the country’s bid to meet long-term demand for electricity.

But what bears real concern is Indonesia’s lack of experience in operating a nuclear power plant. Gorontola resident and environmental activist was quoted saying that residents in the area were never asked if they wanted a nuclear plant and explained the need for one. He added that “I’m also not confident of the country’s ability to run nuclear power. We’re already having problems controlling mud.”

This issue of whether to go nuclear is compounded by the fact that Gorontalo is a hotbed of racial and religious violence, and is a suspected refuge for Jemaah Islamiyah militants.  The Governor of the region however assured that the elite unit of the Indonesian army will be roped in to safeguard the plant and protect it against “terrorist attacks” once it has been built.

Sources:

Govt to fight haze on its own (Jakarta Post, 13 October 2006)

Indonesia told to ratify haze treaty urgently (AFP, 13 October 2006)

Blame game in Indonesia (The Straits Times, 13 October 2006)

KL will propose joint fund to help fight fires (The Straits Times, 13 October 2006)

High-level regional panel to tackle haze (The Straits Times, 13 October 2006)

Foreign media’s reports about haze irk Adnan (The Star, 13 October 2006)

$79m up in smoke for S'pore (Channel News Asia, 13 October 2006)

In a haze of good intentions (The Straits Times, 14 October 2006)

M'sia Wants M'sian Companies Torching Forests In Indonesia Prosecuted (Bernama, 14 October 2006)

Sulawesi could go nuclear but can it handle the power? (TODAY, 14 October 2006)

Haze puts M'sia's fireflies, wildlife at risk (Reuters, 15 October 2006)

Indonesia close ranks (The Straits Times, 17 October 2006)