Vanishing skyline, vanishing forest and vanishing mangroves : Hazy days ahead for Southeast Asia’s environment

Updated On: Jul 21, 2006

As recent media reports would attest, environmental woes are plaguing Southeast Asia.

The transboundary haze pollution is blanketing the region (annually from July to September since 1997), amid news of persistent logging and other practices that contribute to biodiversity loss and mangrove destruction.

The slash-and-burn practices of plantation farmers in Indonesia and some parts of Malaysia, coupled with the strong southeasterly monsoon, have created hazardous smoke blanketing the region, especially northern peninsular Malaysia and southern Thailand. Satellites at the Asean Special Meteorological Centre – officially established in 1993 as a regional collaboration programme – detected 188 hot spots in Sumatra, 148 in Kalimantan and 27 in Malaysia.

Whilst the haze is oft-characterized as a ‘seasonal phenomena due to the dry southwest monsoon season,’ three of Department of Environment’s (Malaysia) 51 monitoring stations – in Seberang Jaya in Penang, Port Klang and Seri Manjung in Perak – recorded readings showing an unhealthy API (Air Pollution Index) mark for the first time since the return of haze last 2005. Visibility on July 18 was reduced to two-kilometres in Penang and Kedah, and to three-kilometres in Perak, according to the Meteorological Services Department (Malaysia) and the following day saw further deterioration in Prai, Butterworth, Chuping, Alor Star, Sitiawan and the Cameron Highlands to between two-kilometres and six-kilometres.

There is concern that the country’s 26 million people living on the peninsula would encounter a longer period of haze due to the prolonged dry and hot weather. In response, the government announced plans for cloud-seeding in haze-affected states by the end of the week. 

Elsewhere, the haze has reduced visibility to about five-kilometres in five southern Thai provinces of Songkhla, Satun, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwatt that lie across a strip of the Andaman Sea from the burning jungles of Indonesia's Sumatra island. Thailand’s Pollution Control Department (PCD) reported that dust levels in the air in Songkhla had increased from 53 microgrammes per cubic metre on July 17 to 128 microgrammes per cubic metre (above the acceptable 120 mg per cu/m level) the next day.

Singapore is least hit at the moment by the haze, with the PSI (Pollutant Standards Index) remaining below 50, but the country braces for uncertainties as dictated by the wind direction as well as the number and location of hot spots in Indonesia.

The perpetrators – plantations accounting for around 80 per cent of the hot spots in previous years – have yet to be identified, as governments grapple with the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) call in 2005 for Asian nations to enforce bans on open burning to prevent the annual haze crisis. Nevertheless, ground efforts by grassroots environmental organizations in Indonesia such as Indonesian Forum for Environment and WWF Indonesia to identify perpetrators are promising.Singapore’s inter-ministry task force, established since 1994, has been updating its standard operating procedures and exchanging information with Indonesian authorities to deal with the fires.

Indonesia’s problem with unchecked slash-and-burn practices is further exacerbated with recent news of the country’s fast vanishing mangrove trees, with 6.6 million hectares destroyed over the past seven years, and around 70 % of mangrove areas damaged in total.  Environmentalists have opined that the protection of mangrove forests would have reduced the impact of the December 2004 tsunami on Aceh.

Aris Poniman, an official with the National Survey and Charting Coordination Agency, also reported that the rate of mangrove destruction in Indonesia reached 60,000 hectares a year during the 1990s, and the problem similarly afflicted several other Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam and the Philippines.

Amid the hazy gloom cast over the region, two Sabah forest reserves (to be bequeathed as Malaysia’s biodiversity gift to the world by the end of next year) appear set to be logged in a month or two before the 2007 deadline first announced by Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Musa Aman on March 15.

The race against time to log the remaining 30% of the Malua and Ulu Segama forest reserves, covering a total of 236,825ha, in spite of the use of reduced impact logging (RIL) techniques, would endanger countless species of plants and wildlife. A 2003 state government report revealed that the two forest reserves are the last strongholds for about 5,000 orang utans in Borneo. 

A greater sense of environmental awareness amongst stakeholders at all levels is required to understand the implications of actions that have otherwise been too narrowly focused on short-term economic ends. No longer can we treat the issues such as the haze pollution, biodiversity loss and mangrove destruction as discrete problems, as they represent a slippery slope of Southeast Asia’s environmental fate which affects the region’s security as a whole. 


Biodiversity gift to the world may be plundered (The Star, 16 July 2006)

Sabah CM: Logging won't damage environment (The Star, 18 July 2006)

RI struggles to save mangroves (Jakarta Post, 18 July 2006 )

M'sia hit by haze from Indon fires (AFP/The Straits Times, 18 July 2006)

5 Thai provinces report haze from Indon forest fires (AP/The Straits Times, 18 July 2006)

Haze returns to Malaysia and Thailand (Bernama, 18 July 2006)

Haze makes air quality "unhealthy" in parts of Malaysia (AFP/Channel News Asia, 18 July 2006)

Thailand hit by haze from Indonesia fires (The Star, 18 July 2006)

Haze blankets southern Thailand (Bangkok Post, 18 July 2006)

Air pollution worsens in the South (Bangkok Post, 19 July 2006)

Set for another hazy spell (The Star, 19 July 2006)

Around 70% of Indonesia's mangrove damaged (Antara, 19 July 2006)

Wind conditions likely to keep haze from S'pore (The Straits Times, 20 July 2006)

Cloud seeding in hazy areas (Channel News Asia, 20 July 2006)