BANGKOK | 29 SEPTEMBER 2023
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.
While haze pollution at this time of the year is not new 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. There is also an active Indian Ocean Dipole pattern, which typically brings drier weather to the ASEAN region. (These two were present in several haze episodes in the past.)
Haze has been blanketing parts of Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Sumatra regions, where the number of monthly hotspots have increased sharply since July and peaked at 6,265 in September. This year’s haze has so far been nowhere in the range of the most severe episode in 2015, although the number of hotspots from January to late September 2023 is higher than the annual counts since 2020, ASEAN data show. (Hotspots are not always fires, but are places where satellites detect temperatures higher than surrounding areas.)
September is the peak time for the 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.
Because it is now fire season, the haze has been getting a lot of news coverage in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, similar to how it was for Thailand and Laos earlier in the year (although the fires in this part of the region are usually related to clearing of land and burning of residues to prepare for the next season planting). Still, people often view the haze 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 Varkkey, who has been studying the issue for nearly two decades and is the author of several books on it.
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,” Varkkey added.
Chronic haze has been a region-wide conversation for decades. ASEAN’s agreement on transboundary haze pollution was signed in 2002. Described as the first regional arrangement of its kind in the world, it was agreed upon after a bad haze/fire episode in 1997-98.
ASEAN, which has an online haze portal and a full coordination centre to be hosted by Jakarta, considers its haze response a success in regional cooperation. But critics call it inadequate, pointing to gaps such as the lack of a uniform air quality index among member countries.
Apart from causing health emergencies (polluting air with PM2.5 particulate matter, among others) and releasing carbon into an already too-warm Earth, the haze has sparked regional tensions over the years.
Indonesia is put on the spot on the haze, and its neighbours, for instance, blamed it for the 2015 haze crisis. This year, tensions between Malaysia and Indonesia have flared up over haze pollution.
In late September 2023 and into early October, Malaysia’s environment department said haze from Indonesia’s fires reached the country’s west coast and Sarawak on the Malaysian part of Borneo island, as well as Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, causing air pollution and leading to a spike in hospital admissions. The Malaysian government also sent a letter to Indonesia about the haze problem. On several occasions, Indonesia’s Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said “the fact is that there is no transboundary haze”, and asked if Malaysia was confusing hotspots with fires.
Earlier this year, the haze was also at the top of the political agenda in mainland Southeast Asia. In April, 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 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 Reporting Asean’s editor and founder Johanna Son and Dr Helena Varkkey.
Johanna, Reporting ASEAN: How has the conversation around haze changed over the decades?
Helena 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.
What has been the biggest impact/contribution of the ASEAN haze agreement, especially since it’s legally binding?
Helena: The agreement has been important in putting together a systematic monitoring and reporting system, through the SOP (standard operating procedure) for Monitoring Assessment and Joint Emergency Response observed by the National Monitoring Centres. This has also contributed to a better early warning system for the region, anchored by the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre.
Overall, it has increased the understanding of what to expect and how to prepare for haze. This has especially been useful in helping countries with less developed meteorological systems to increase capacity.
Even years ago, ASEAN saw its responses on haze as a success story in regional cooperation. Would you say this description is valid decades after, and why?
Helena: 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.
And 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.
What’s the biggest challenge in carrying out an ASEAN-style response? While it has a haze portal, do all countries use the same PM2.5 standards and use it to make decisions?
Helena: 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 (still not in place in ASEAN), can be politicised – whose standard deserves to be adopted over others, and why?
(In June 2023, Thailand started using the tighter ambient air standards aligned that those of the World Health Organisation for PM2.5 particulate matter, the main pollutant in haze and much of the region’s air pollution. Singapore uses the Pollutant Standards Index and Malaysia, the Air Pollution Index – Ed.)
The agreement to set up the ASEAN coordinating centre on haze has very recently been put in place, to be hosted by Indonesia. What’s needed to make it work?
Helena: 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.
The ASEAN Secretariat Environment Division is overburdened and understaffed, and a specialised centre would be able to carry out more targeted haze-related activities all year round.
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.
How effective have efforts been to set good-behaviour norms – such as zero burning as a consumer concern, through measures such as those in Singapore to list companies that don’t use products from burnt land? Do you find that the haze is high up there among Southeast Asians’ concerns, even health concerns, or in terms of the pressure they put on their governments?
Helena: 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 Foodstands 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.
(In August 2023, a Thai court ruled on a lawsuit filed by civil society groups and individuals who said the government had failed to take address the country’s PM2.5 pollution. Among others, it ordered the government to hold factories to tighter emission standards and implement the Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR), including PM2.5 in the list of pollutants, for public disclosure of pollutant releases. – Ed.)
ASEAN has new plans for making the region ‘haze-free’ – 2020 was the aim of the first roadmap, and now it’s 2030. Does a ‘haze-free ASEAN’ sound like a realistic or doable goal?
Helena: 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 peatsoil is exposed to the air and dry out quickly. Therefore, if our peatlands can be managed well – those undisturbed conserved, and those that are 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 of these peat fires.
(This article was updated on 18 October 2023 to add the Indonesia-Malaysia tension over this year’s haze and the latest number of hotspots until September.)