After falling steadily in recent years, the number of haze-causing hotspots in Indonesia this year has spiked to numbers that now exceed those in 2006, the last time Singapore experienced a prolonged hazy spell.
Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Dr Vivian Balakrishnan described the rise as "considerable backsliding".
The return of the haze to grey the city air of Singapore and other parts of the region once again raises questions about regional cooperation.
Almost 15 years have passed since the worst episode of the haze in 1997 and while things have not gotten worse, an effective resolution has not been found. Back then, Indonesia - where land and forest fires create the pollution - was in political and economic turmoil. It has now made a democratic transition and boasts a booming economy.
Then, the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) also faced much criticism for failing to effectively respond to the Asian crisis. Today, the group - albeit with some problems - stands at the heart of Asia and is aiming for an ASEAN Community by 2015.
Yet the haze remains a recurrent regional problem. It has been estimated to cost billions in economic losses from reduced tourism and surges in respiratory and other ailments. Its long-term health impacts are of great concern, especially for Indonesians living nearest the fires.
ASEAN has negotiated and signed a treaty specifically to address the haze problem. Indonesia, however, has not ratified it because its Parliament objects to the lack of any benefit to offset the ensuing obligations. Nonetheless, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has pledged to tackle the haze, and there had been a steady decrease in the number of hotspots after 2006.
But the recent rise in the number of hotspots, as noted by Dr Balakrishnan in Parliament last week, shows that gains made in past years can easily be reversed.
LOOKING BEYOND JAKARTA
The real solutions to the haze lie not in the air, nor in paper promises. Approaches that work must also look beyond the politics of Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, which does not directly experience the problem.
Efforts must be made on the ground and in the provinces where the fires burn. Provincial authorities have more authority and impact on the issue, given the decentralisation of administrative power in the country and distances from the centre.
The efforts, moreover, must be made with an attitude of working together with local communities and corporations on the ground. Funding for solutions and finding alternative livelihoods for villagers must be part of the approach. Such efforts have been piloted.
Since 2007, Singapore has worked with local authorities in Jambi province. Malaysia has similarly made special efforts in Riau. When the environment ministers of these countries met in Brunei in May, indications were shared to show that these projects have been of use, with fewer fires in the areas where cooperation was enhanced.
Singapore will now commit to renew the Jambi project. Malaysia is expected to do similarly.
But beyond this, if these efforts are indeed helpful, governments should upscale and multiply their projects. Moreover, we should look beyond inter-government cooperation, to tap the expertise of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
PRIVATE SECTOR'S ROLE
One prospect is the Heart of Borneo, an initiative by the World Wide Fund for Nature to conserve areas across parts of Brunei, East Malaysia and Kalimantan and prevent fires spreading across the northern belt of Borneo. But while this and various NGO schemes have potential, few or none are up and running at a high standard that is verified and sustainable.
The private sector can play a positive role in moving ahead. Funding is needed for conservation and can be mobilised through carbon offsets and REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) schemes.
But a precondition is that governments provide sufficient regulatory frameworks and incentives. Otherwise, investors will continue to be uncertain that there will be financial returns and inertia will continue.
Another pressing issue is to ensure that corporations operating in fire-prone regions observe laws against the use of fire. There are better companies that try to do so. But errant companies must be subject to legal sanction in Indonesia or else face economic pressure on their products.
Pressure on the palm oil industry has been growing, and some companies have responded responsibly by seeking certification that their practices are legal and sustainable. Customers, investors and financiers in this industry should increasingly require such certification.
It does matter where Indonesia stands in all this. This is not only about ratifying the ASEAN Haze Agreement on paper. Even more importantly, provincial authorities, private sector corporations and NGOs need to step and deepen cooperation on the ground.
Simon Tay and Nicholas Fang
Business & Investment Opportunities
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