Haze Crisis and What ASEAN Can Do

Haze crisis in Southeast Asia is not something new. It happens annually, usually starts in June and stops as season changes and rain comes, which is around September or October. The cause is clear, and that is the burning of forest and petlands in Sumatera and Kalimantan, Indonesia.  Yet its impacts on both the originating country and its neighbours have worsened each year. The situation is particularly bad now as one report stated that the 2015 fires have emitted enough greenhouse gases to rival Germany’s annual output of CO2.  In Sumatera and Kalimantan at least 25.6 million people are exposed to unhealthy air. The thick and lingering smoke causes limited visibility of merely 20 meters. The haze crisis is also affecting Singapore, Malaysia, the Phillipines, and even the Eastern islands in Indonesia.  The severity of it brings six provinces in Indonesia to declare the crisis a state emergency.

As this annual and actually preventable disaster severe implications to the aspect of health and livelihoods of the populations of many ASEAN member states, should ASEAN do something to address this issue? But what can ASEAN do?

The answer to the first question is of course, yes, ASEAN should do something.  The haze crisis is an incident that requires a concerted effort. Smokes know no boundaries, thus there is little a single authority could do to alleviate the haze problem except to advise residents to stay indoors, to wear masks and to hope that the wind could change direction soon or for the rain to start . Desperate measures as such are obviously insufficient, especially because at the ASEAN level there is a specific agreement that addresses this very transnational problem.

In 2002, the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was declared. The Agreement is made to be legally binding, a rare quality for ASEAN that is well-known for its non-interference policy. It is ratified by 10 member states and Indonesia is the last one to have ratified this agreement. It requires the Parties: (i) cooperate in developing and implementing measures to prevent, monitor, and mitigate transboundary haze pollution by controlling sources of land and/or forest fires, development of monitoring, assessment and early warning systems, exchange of information and technology, and the provision of mutual assistance; (ii) respond promptly to a request for relevant information sought by a State or States that are or may be affected by such transboundary haze pollution, with a view to minimising the consequence of the transboundary haze pollution; and (iii) take legal, administrative and/ or other measures to implement their obligations under the Agreement.

Interestingly, these agreed points are not being referred to in the actions aimed to curb the haze crisis. The statements of  “global role model for the tackling of transboundary issues”, and the “first regional arrangement in the world that binds a group of contiguous states to tackle transboundary haze pollution resulting from land and forest fires” become simply meaningless advertisements and contemptuous action of speech towards people suffering from repository problems.

The haze crisis of 2015 reconfirms that the incident is not only an environmental problem but also a developmental issue. Different development priorities and strategies are involved, adding to the complexity of its cause and augmenting the challenges for its eradication. Exactly because of this point, ASEAN should urge the member states to enforce the Agreement in, first of all, the assessment of their development models, particularly concerning agricultural policies and the expansion of palm oil plantations. This implies incorporating the points of the Agreement in the governance of forest and petlands in each country. Secondly, being one of the few legally binding documents in ASEAN, the Agreement provides an impetus for creating a monitoring body, at the regional level, that will collect information necessary for preventing the crisis and, more importantly, take legal, administrative and other measures to implement member states’ obligations under the Agreement.

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