Here Comes the Haze, Again

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Here Comes the Haze, Again

Inertia within ASEAN and a refusal to enforce rules mean Southeast Asia is again grappling with “the haze.”

Every year, large parts of Southeast Asia are blanketed by a thick dirty smog, unlovingly referred to as the haze. Residents choke, asthmatics remain indoors, children are barred from playing outside and the authorities seem to think it’s a kind of price the people must pay for progress.

Of course, their arguments are nonsense. But the haze is back, so be prepared for the regular excuses trotted out to justify the slash and burn techniques used by Indonesian farmers that cause the thick smog, or why Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta are incapable of finding a solution.

This is despite laws being passed to ban burning off practices.

Excuses will range from cultural rights that justify traditional farming techniques to that old chestnut where members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) decide to do nothing if any course of action risks being interpreted as dabbling in a neighbor’s affairs.

At the end of the day, the haze will continue because authorities won’t enforce the laws.

The haze has already reached unhealthy levels over parts of Malaysia, and the season has only just begun with the annual monsoon, typically lasting from May till September. The National Environment Agency in Singapore is warning the smog will intensify over the island-state if the winds change direction.

Satellite photos have showed about 600 hotspots over Sumatra, while Malaysia has banned burning off in several states and imposed stiff penalties for offenders, with exceptions made for spiritual practices in religious and funeral rites.

Previous attempts at dousing the fires have included controlled burning, spraying and trench construction. None worked. The most innovative was cloud seeding from an aircraft, which proved about as effective as a Native American rain dance.

In fact, the biggest success in combating last year’s haze was an exchange of letters expressing concern between governments.

The rights of humans to breath fresh air aside, the haze takes an enormous toll on wildlife, including orangutans, elephants and tigers. The Asian Development Bank has found that financial losses caused by the big smoke are enormous, and measures them in billions of dollars.

Individual peat fires alone can burn for months, and continue burning underground even after the surface is extinguished by heavy rains. Southeast Asia is full of it – 24 million hectares of peat and 70 percent of that is in Indonesia.

ASEAN adopted an agreement on cross-border haze pollution in 2002 to help combat fires caused by slash and burn practices and massive land clearing for products like palm oil.

But the treaty can’t be implemented because Indonesia has failed to ratify it, and the 200 million people who live under the haze will just have to endure it.