Dangers of seeing haze as 'seasonal'

Dangers of seeing haze as 'seasonal'

At the start of 2023, mainland Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Laos hunkered down under a persistent haze. Heading toward the yearend, it is the turn of the maritime Asean countries -- Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore -- to be on alert during haze season.

For the southern part of Southeast Asia, this year's dry season came with warnings of severe haze risks due to the onset of El Niño, and the hot and dry conditions it brings in a longer than usual dry season -- amid the climate crisis.

Haze has been blanketing parts of Indonesia's Kalimantan and Sumatra regions, where the number of monthly hotspots has increased sharply since July but is, so far, nowhere in the range of the most severe episode in 2015, Asean data shows. (Hotspots are not always fires, but are places where temperatures are detected to be higher than in surrounding areas.)

September is the peak time for fires in forests and peatlands in Indonesia, caused by open burning in forests and land cleared for commercial plantations such as oil palm, and fires across areas made more flammable by dry weather and degradation.

There has been a lot of news coverage around haze issues in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, similar to how it was in Thailand and Laos earlier in the year. Still, people often view it as a pesky problem that they need to bear for a time but will go away -- until the next time.

While haze is seasonal, the conversation around it should not be seasonal, says Helena Varkkey, associate professor of environmental politics and governance at Universiti Malaya.

"Haze is not high among the list of concerns because of its seasonal nature," said Ms Varkkey, who has been studying the issue for nearly two decades.

But, she adds, there is a clearer understanding now that haze pollution is caused by human activity and can thus be prevented or solved. "There has to be a more sustained conversation about haze as a public health issue, like how we discuss dengue," Ms Varkkey added. Chronic haze has been a region-wide conversation for decades. Asean's agreement on haze pollution was signed in 2002, although critics find it inadequate.

The haze has sparked regional tensions over the years. Indonesia is put on the spot by the haze, and its neighbours blamed it for the 2015 haze crisis. In April this year, Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha held a video conference to discuss the haze with Lao Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone and Myanmar State Administrative Council's Min Aung Hlaing.

"The fact that there are perceived perpetrators and victims of the haze crisis, often coming from different Asean countries, is the biggest challenge (to a regional response)," said Ms Varkkey, who was involved in reviewing Asean's haze roadmap. "This has resulted in an unhelpful blame game between countries."

Below is the conversation between Johanna Son and Dr Helena Varkkey.

Q: How has the conversation around haze changed over the decades?

Varkkey: The conversation has shifted in several ways. One, in terms of the understanding of haze as an anthropogenic, and not 'natural' occurrence. Even though there remains some sensitivity about discussing too openly the link between haze and certain sectors, there is an understanding now that haze is human-made and, therefore, it should be avoidable. Secondly, but more slowly, we have conversations shifting from a focus on emergency response, to the importance of prevention. However, this is more slow/challenging because haze by nature is seasonal, so it is challenging to keep the conversation about prevention going year round. As for public health, there has always been concern about how haze affects our health. But again, this has been seasonal. There has to be a more sustained conversation about haze as a public health issue, like how we discuss dengue, etc.

Q: Years ago, Asean said its haze response is a success story. Would you say this description is valid decades after, and why?

Varkkey: I would say that it is still a success story, for what it is. It was a platform where an organisation, normally averse to legally-binding agreements and so focused on economic growth, came together over a quite sensitive issue to prioritise sustainable development. Although the agreement has yet to result in a truly haze-free Asean, it is not dead in the water, as it is still operational, and there are continually new additions to the Asean haze framework, which helps the agreement along one step at a time. For example, the association is currently working on the Asean Haze-Free Roadmap phase 2.

Q: What's the biggest challenge in carrying out an Asean-style response?

Varkkey: The fact that there are perceived perpetrators and victims of the haze crisis, often coming from different Asean countries, is the biggest challenge. This has resulted in an unhelpful blame game between countries, which politicises information sharing and mobilisation of assistance. This differs from say, a natural disaster issue, where nobody is to blame and regional action can be carried out in a straightforward manner. Indeed, even adopting a standardised air quality index for the region, can be politicised -- whose standard deserves to be adopted over others, and why?

Q: The agreement to set up the Asean haze centre was put in place very recently, and it will be hosted by Indonesia. What's needed to make it work?

Varkkey: The Coordination Centre was part of the original Asean Haze Agreement, and has been hosted within the Environment Division of the Asean Secretariat in the interim while arrangements for the standalone centre in Indonesia are finalised. It's very important for this standalone centre to be functional as soon as possible.

Being hosted in Indonesia, it would be ideal if the Centre was located close to frequently-burning areas, in say Kalimantan or Sumatra, as opposed to Jakarta, which generally does not suffer from fire-induced haze. However, it is very important for the centre to be adequately funded, with well-qualified staff based on expertise and not necessarily nationality.

Q: How effective have efforts been to set good-behaviour norms? Is the haze high up there among Southeast Asians' concerns, or in terms of the pressure they put on their governments?

Varkkey: Haze is not high among the list of concerns because of its seasonal nature. Even some politicians are guilty of using this seasonal nature (it will be fine one the rain comes, etc) of haze to appease the public. But efforts like Singapore's is good -- PMHaze there has a year-round campaign for Haze-Free Food-stands and efforts like this help keep haze top of mind even outside of the haze season. Other initiatives in countries like Thailand and Malaysia have focused on the concept of clean air as a human right. This approach breaks out of the 'seasonal' cage: it also speaks directly to the year-round problem of ambient air pollution, which is high in places like Bangkok.

Q: Asean has new plans for making the region 'haze-free' by 2030. Does a 'haze-free Asean' sound like a realistic or doable goal?

Varkkey: Yes, at least for the southern/maritime part of Asean, a haze-free existence is possible. This is because most of the haze-producing fires in this part of the region occur in peatlands. Peatlands are naturally waterlogged, and thus difficult to catch fire naturally.

They, however, do become flammable when disturbed and drained -- where the carbon-rich peat soil is exposed to the air and dry out quickly. Therefore, if our peatlands can be managed well -- those undisturbed conserved, and those disturbed managed properly or rewetted and rehabilitated -- we should not have fires. It comes down to our ability and political will to change the anthropogenic drivers. Reporting ASEAN

Johanna Son is editor/founder of the Reporting ASEAN series.

Johanna Son

Founder/editor of the Reporting ASEAN series

Johanna Son is founder/editor of the Reporting ASEAN series.


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