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The Polluter (Never) Pays: Southeast Asia’s Recurring Haze Crisis

Singapore’s Central Business District is known for its world-famous skyline. It boasts towering skyscrapers, a giant Ferris wheel, and the Marina Bay Sands hotel, whose unique design of three sloping towers connected on top by a boat-shaped “SkyPark” has taken the architectural world by storm. Marina Bay Sands is a one-of-a-kind building that can be seen from across the city-state. But on September 14, the entire skyline was almost unseen, obscured by a dense cloud of pollution.

The cause of the haze was forest fires in Indonesia. The country’s largest island, Sumatra, has been almost entirely engulfed by smog from blazes in the eastern Riau province. The smoke was so thick that flights to and from parts of the region were cancelled and schools were closed. Citizens were advised to avoid spending time outside and to wear masks to reduce the likelihood of respiratory problems. Despite the precautions, tens of thousands were troubled with acute respiratory tract infections, with 100,000 reported cases in East Kalimantan province alone. The pollution has even proved fatal in several cases.

The pollution spread to the neighboring states of Singapore and Malaysia within days, dramatically affecting their air quality standards. In Singapore, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) — a measure of air quality — increased to 317; for reference, Singapore’s National Environment Agency considers a PSI over 100 “unhealthy” and a reading over 300 “hazardous.” Similar figures were recorded across Malaysia. In Riau, the PSI surged to a record of 984, forcing residents to flee the region.

Such extreme haze is not just a freak occurrence, but rather a recurring problem that has altered the dynamics of Southeast Asian politics. Each summer, forest fires break out across Indonesia’s dense forests and farmlands, releasing thick clouds of smog that drift to Singapore and Malaysia. The haze is typically not hazardous enough to warrant closing airports and schools, but it is always accompanied by serious health warnings from local governments. However, the frequency and intensity of the fires and subsequent haze crises have only multiplied in recent years, causing widespread concern in the region.

The forest fires originate from large palm oil and paper plantations on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. In a misguided effort to expand their farmland, farmers have taken to burning the fields and surrounding forests for future crops. This process of “slash-and-burn farming” is the cheapest, simplest way to clear woodland, as it requires no heavy machinery or extra labor. Unfortunately, many of these estates are built on fertile peatland composed of fossil fuels; this ensures that the fires often expand uncontrollably, often making it deep underground where fighting them is even more challenging.

Although slash-and-burn land-clearing is outlawed by the Indonesian government, local authorities have failed to enforce the ban. In the last decade, hardly anyone has been convicted of lighting fires. Instead, the government either employs lofty rhetoric without any action or turns a blind eye altogether. With government inaction, the smoky byproduct of harmful farming techniques continues to pollute the region.

The first major haze crisis in recent memory occurred in 1997. Smog from man-made forest fires lasted for months and engulfed the entire region, ranging from eastern Indonesia to western Malaysia. The pollution set a then-record for the highest PSI recorded and resulted in a 30 percent increase in hospital visits. The fallout from the pollution cost Southeast Asian governments a total of $9 billion. Ultimately, Malaysian firefighters were deployed to Indonesia to help locals stifle the flames. The mission, aptly titled “Operation Haze”, was the largest cross-border firefighting operation in history.

Pollution again rose to alarming proportions in 2013. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and southern Thailand were shrouded in thick haze for days. Singapore’s PSI hit a new record high of 371, alarming residents and resulting in a host of illnesses citywide. The crisis cost almost twice as much as the 1997 event, and brought regional tensions to a head. Singapore’s Environment and Water Resource Minister Vivian Balakrishnan announced that he would encourage commercial pressure on the plantation companies responsible for the fires. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak followed up this announcement with a “protest letter” that called on the Indonesian government to take action. Ultimately, despite protestations, both Singapore and Malaysia offered Indonesia aid to check the forest fires.

This time, the haze crisis has once again heightened growing tensions between the traditionally peaceful neighbors. Singapore and Malaysia are understandably incensed over the impacts of the haze. It has affected their local economies, as residents and tourists alike have opted to forego shops and restaurants to stay inside. Furthermore, Singapore is doubly furious because the pollution and resulting low visibility almost halted the city-state’s staging of the Singapore Grand Prix Formula 1 auto race, although it ultimately took place successfully on September 20. Both nations have continued to pressure Jakarta to staunch the flames and punish the culprits.

Indonesia has responded to regional tensions by accusing Singapore of behaving “like a child” over the pollution. The government has also claimed that several of the companies behind the fires were of Singaporean and Malaysian origin and refused to accept Singaporean aid money unless it was a sufficiently large amount. Such petty actions earned them a rebuke from Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who declined to participate in “megaphone diplomacy.” The squabbling was unexpected given that Singapore and Indonesia have long been erstwhile economic and diplomatic allies. Such breakdowns in communication could very well redefine Southeast Asian cooperation if allowed to fester.

That being said, recurring haze crises have previously resulted in strong collaboration among Southeast Asian nations. Other governments have repeatedly offered technology, manpower, and aid to Indonesia to reduce pollution. In 2002, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries signed the Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement, a treaty that commits to cross-border cooperation in dealing with haze. It is considered a model for international and regional crisis management.

Regardless of the rhetoric, the prospects of conciliation remain hopeful for Southeast Asian relations. Indonesia has apologized to their neighbors for the haze, and on September 29, high-level officials from Indonesia and Singapore met to discuss possible solutions. In addition, Indonesia has shown signs of approaching the crisis more seriously than in previous instances, sending a force of nearly 21,000 to tackle the fires. They have also begun prosecuting four Indonesian companies that have been linked to the fires. These acts suggest that the Indonesian government has accepted responsibility and is ready to take action.

For years, the ASEAN nations have debated potential solutions to the annual issue of haze. The only tangible result yet, the Transboundary Haze Pollution Agreement, lacks any serious enforcement mechanisms and there is little foreign governments can do to reverse the trend. Unless the Indonesian authorities undertake long-term and forceful action against arsonists, waves of forest fires and smog will continue to plague the entire region for years to come.

Indonesia has begun the process by prosecuting the culpable plantations. It is now important for them to defend and maintain their stance and bolster local enforcement in order to prevent further slash-and-burn fires. That such a serious breach of global health and environmental standards has been allowed to continue for over two decades borders on the absurd. It is time to end the recurring haze problem, once and for all.


About the Author

Mili Mitra '18 is an International Relations concentrator and a senior staff writer for BPR.