Deal with physical and political root causes of haze, Asean told

A forest burns in Sumatra, Indonesia, where local authorities said they have deployed personnel to combat fires contributing to the haze. (Bernama pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: Asean must deal with the physical and political root causes of fires and haze, a Universiti Malaya senior lecturer said.

Helena Varkkey, of the university’s Department of International and Strategic Studies, said that even if there is one year free of haze, it does not mean the following years would be haze-free.

Varkkey said Asean’s vision of a haze-free region by next year is very much dependent on Indonesia’s political will to effectively handle the fires internally and accept assistance in a timely manner.

During the current round of transboundary haze, she said, Indonesia has been reluctant to accept assistance from Malaysia.

“We are not sure if there will be another round of big fires next year.

“However, whether this will result in regional haze will very much depend on prevention efforts by Indonesia, which will hopefully be put more strongly in place after this round of fires dies down.

“But we must remember that one transboundary haze-free year, even if 2020 is haze-free, does not mean the following years will also be haze-free,” she told Bernama.

More than 4,000 hotpots have been detected in Indonesia’s central and western regions with local authorities deploying personnel to combat fires contributing to the haze blanketing the region.

The Indonesian government is said to have sealed off plantations, including concessionaires owned by foreign companies, over open burning.

The transboundary haze from forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra has caused the closure of hundreds of schools in Sarawak and Johor as air quality in several districts dropped to very unhealthy levels.

However, the Indonesian government has refused to accept the blame, claiming that the smog affecting Kuala Lumpur originated from Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia.

It has also rejected Malaysia’s complaints about hazardous smoke drifting from its forest fires across the border, saying that fires are also raging in parts of Malaysia and on Malaysian-owned plantations in Indonesia.

Varkkey said pointing fingers is not helpful as President Joko Widodo has, for the past few years, lamented that even though there have been forest fires in Indonesia, they have not caused transboundary haze.

On the other hand, she said, Malaysia relies on the regional Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre data that shows that most of the smoke is indeed coming from Indonesia.

“However, we must also admit that we do have some fires on our territories as well, even though they are not as big (as Indonesia’s) – this should not be glossed over.

“There is also the continuous background issue of Malaysian plantations operating in Indonesia which may also have a role in land clearing that directly or indirectly causes fire,” she said.

She said that both countries should look beyond blame on the causes and focus instead on the solutions – initiate effective cooperation on prevention activities and quickly coordinate transborder assistance at the early stages of the fires.

An example of preventive activity is to re-initiate the old memoranda of understanding between the countries on land use and fire management training, Varkkey said.

She pointed out that the conditions on the ground are very much dependent on weather such as El Nino and monsoon winds that cause drought and winds that blow the smoke over vast distances, adding that some years have more favourable weather than others.

To attain the vision of a haze-free region, she said Asean countries need to take prevention measures such as building canal blocks to ensure peatland, both pristine and developed, stays wet and non-flammable, protecting sensitive forests from clearance, and strictly controlling fire use for agriculture and plantations.

Varkkey said short-term solutions such as masks may help to reduce irritation and may make people braver to continue to work and carry out normal activities, but most masks cannot filter out smaller particles that are harmful to health in the long-run.

“In the broader sense, there is increased health costs that is spread across the population,” she said.

“Man hours are lost due to sick days taken, or if children are sick, parents need to take days off to care for them. This means a drop in productivity across all sectors.”