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Amber Risk of Severe Transboundary Haze in 2020

08 Jul Amber Risk of Severe Transboundary Haze in 2020

The SIIA Haze Outlook 2020 Report identifies COVID-19 as a major factor impacting fire prevention efforts

The Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) released its annual Haze Outlook 2020 report on 25 June 2020, providing a risk assessment of the probability of a transboundary haze incident later this year. We held an online launch with Associate Professor Simon Tay, the SIIA Chairman, and Mr. Aaron Choo, Assistant Director (International Affairs and Media), where they presented findings of the report. Ms. Khor Yu Leng, SIIA Associate Fellow (Sustainability), joined the panel during the question and answer session. The report is available for download on our website. A video of highlights from the launch webinar is available on our YouTube channel, with the full recording available as premium content for SIIA Corporate Members.

Screenshots - Haze Outlook

Amber risk of severe transboundary haze in 2020

The SIIA’s Haze Outlook 2020 Report predicted that there is a moderate risk of a severe transboundary haze incident in 2020 – rated Amber on a scale of Green, Amber, and Red. The risk assessment is based on three factors: weather (temperature and rainfall conditions), peat (policies and actions related to peat and land management), and people (human action, including fire prevention and firefighting efforts).

COVID-19 pandemic hinders fire prevention efforts

The transboundary haze that periodically affects the region is caused by smoke from forest and land fires, primarily in Indonesia. The haze issue is compounded this year by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already hindered fire prevention and firefighting efforts. The economic uncertainty triggered by the pandemic may also affect fire and haze risk this year. Collective action to implement early preventative measures and reinforce sustainability commitments within the resource sector is essential.

A look at other factors that drive haze

Weather is less of a concern for haze risk in 2020. Regions of Indonesia are still entering the annual dry season, but this year’s dry season is expected to be milder than last year and perhaps even wetter than average. If the risk assessment were purely based on the weather, it would be Green for this year.

In terms of policy, the Indonesian government is taking fire and haze risk seriously following the 2019 haze incident, which impacted Indonesians’ health and the country’s economy. The 2019 haze event saw nearly 900,000 cases of respiratory illness recorded in Indonesia, according to Indonesia’s Ministry of Health. The World Bank estimated that the haze cost Indonesia some USD 5.2 billion, or 0.5 per cent of its GDP.

This year, Indonesian authorities have already conducted cloud seeding in Sumatra, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo recently told a special cabinet session that efforts to rewet degraded peat and maintain groundwater levels must continue. The key difficulty for 2020 is the fact that Indonesia is also currently focused on responding to the pandemic. Pandemic response has taken up funding, resources, and energy that might otherwise have gone to fire and haze response. Less capacity is available to prevent illegal forest encroachment and burning. Social distancing and movement restrictions have also interrupted peat restoration projects, as well as efforts to promote sustainable and fire-free practices among village communities and smaller plantation companies.

Will the economic downturn lead to more fires or fewer fires?

Beyond the immediate effect of COVID-19, much depends on how long the economic disruption caused by the pandemic lasts. Some experts believe that there will be less burning this year – there is weak demand for agricultural products and less capital available, which is a disincentive to expand plantation operations. However, there are concerns about the potential impact on medium-sized or national-level growers that still produce on a commercial scale, but do not have international visibility and often lack public sustainability commitments. While larger firms have sufficient scale to ride out the crisis and are unlikely to abandon sustainability commitments during this period, companies with narrower margins may need to keep clearing and planting even amidst a poor market, and may resort to the use of fire as a cost-saving measure.

ASEAN countries and stakeholders must collaborate to tackle the haze amid the pandemic

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been the gravest public health challenge facing ASEAN and the world in recent history, there is still a real danger of a haze crisis occurring. With governments’ resources already being stretched to respond to the pandemic, battling a haze incident in 2020 could exhaust resources and delay economic recovery. ASEAN countries, governments, NGOs, and stakeholders must work together by sharing resources and implementing early measures to prevent or minimise fires.