KUALA LUMPUR: Even as world attention focuses on earthquake and typhoon victims in Southeast Asia, there is grim reminder of another threat to the region - scientists and environmentalists are
warning of a return of the choking haze due to an extended dry season in Indonesia.
A little over a decade ago, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and to a lesser extent - Thailand, were reeling from thick smog from raging forest fires in Indonesia's Kalimantan and Sumatra.
Billions of dollars in economic losses were incurred and there was unaccountable damage done to
people's health and the environment.
Since then, various programmes and initiatives have been implemented to combat the perennial
menace.Singapore has embarked on a joint initiative programme with Indonesia in Jambi province, while Malaysia has signed a bilateral memorandum of understanding with the province of Riau.
However, more needs to be done, according to more than 40 experts attending a regional haze
conference jointly organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and and the institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia.
Said Faizal Parish, director of the Global Environment Center: "More people die from the haze than from earthquakes, but it's not immediate death. In many villages in haze prone areas, 30 per cent of the children have stunted growth. For many of us as adults breathing in the haze, there are many carcinogens."
An estimated 50 million people are at risk of respiratory problems in the region, and some
environmentalists have blamed climate change on the worsening haze situation.
"We don't need more bad news about Southeast Asia (SEA)," said Simon Tay, chairman of the
Singapore Institute of International Affairs. "As the world is... trying to get an agreement on climate change in Copenhagen, the last thing we need is for SEA to be among the culprits releasing more carbon into the air."
Most nations have signed and ratified the ASEAN agreement on transboundary haze pollution in
2002. However, Indonesia continues to block the agreement as many of its lawmakers feel that the country is being unfairly blamed.
Said Laode M Syarif, senior researcher with the Indonesia Center for Environmental Law: "But,
there's hope because we've just elected (new members of parliaments)... 70 per cent entirely new, (and) I really, really hope these new MPs will agree to ratify the agreement."
With regional economies still struggling with slow growth, a return to the hazy and gloomy days is
probably the last thing the region needs. Therefore, experts have urged countries to strengthen their political will and keep up with integrated responses in order to beat the haze.
Source: Melissa Goh, Channel News Asia, "Experts urge countries to keep up integrated responses to beat haze.", 5 Oct 2009