New Straits Times, 23 June 2013
WORRYING: As the haze in Malaysia worsens, environmentalist Gurmit Singh tells Suzanna Pillay that a lack of willpower, especially by the Indonesian authorities, is one of the reasons why transboundary haze continues to be a blight on Asean countries
Question: Transboundary haze is a recurring problem that Southeast Asian governments have failed to solve despite repeated calls for action. Why is this so?
Answer: I presume this is a problem of lack of political will despite there being an Asean anti-haze treaty signed. I think the big problem remains Indonesia, which has failed to ratify the treaty. It reflects the unwillingness of Indonesia to take action. Their forest and peat soil fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan are the biggest contributors to the haze, although there are other contributing causes like the fires in Sabah , Sarawak and other states during this dry period (June-September). Conditions worsen if accompanied by the El Nino effect, which brings dry weather and reduced rainfall with it.
Question: Why is open burning a favoured land-clearing method despite the toll it takes on the environment? Are there no other alternatives that are less harmful to the environment?
Answer: It is an easy and cheaper way to clear land for replanting crops. Even in Malaysia, during rice cultivation, farmers prefer to burn the rice fields, instead of levelling their fields and composting the waste. Oil palm plantations can be cleared and prepared for re-planting via zero-burn technologies where the waste materials can be composted instead. The waste material left behind after the land is cleared is distributed around the existing oil palm plantations so it becomes bio-degradable and eventually becomes fertiliser. It’s a more time consuming, expensive and labour intensive practice. Malaysia, in fact, offered to teach this technique to Indonesian plantation owners many years ago, but it was not taken up.
While it is necessary to stop open burning in Indonesia, a bigger problem is preventing the outbreak of peat soil fires in Indonesia. During open burning when land is being cleared for re-planting, trees are cut, then piled up and set on fire. Apart from emanating smoke, if the burning debris is lying on peat soil, the peat soil catches fire.
Question: : Why are peat-soil fires particularly hazardous?
Answer: Once peat soil catches fire, it becomes extremely difficult to put out, (which means a longer period of haze). Sumatra’s peat soil is very thick, 40-50m down, and the only way to put it out is to isolate it by digging trenches all around the peat soil to isolate it and fill it with water so that the fire does not spread to other peat soil areas and let the affected area burn out. In Malaysia, we have some fires on peat soil, too, but our peat soil is not as thick. So when the peat catches fire it doesn’t burn for as long. Peat is compressed carbon and most oil palm plantations grow on peat soil, even in Malaysia. During the last worst case (of fires) in Indonesia (1997-1998) they had to wait for a massive thunderstorm to put out the fire which burned for six months.
Question: Why is the air quality particularly bad during the haze?
Answer: During this very dry period, a combination of factors — wind direction, dry period, the El Nino effect — come into play and temperature inversion occurs because it is hot, so that whatever pollution is in the air will be pushed down.
So, one other possibility that we, in the Klang Valley particularly, must watch out for is the presence of smoke in the haze, which means the pollutants and gases like sulphur dioxide from cars have been pushed down and that can be more dangerous to health than even the particulate matter from the haze, which only affects our lungs.
It is important for the Department of Environment (DoE) to monitor whether the level of gases at ground level in the Klang Valley has increased and could be detrimental to health.
Question: How effective is the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which came into force in 2003, as a mechanism of control?
Answer: Unless and until Indonesia ratifies it, they have no real legal obligation unlike the other Asean countries like Malaysia and Singapore who have ratified it. The biggest culprit has not ratified and is not obliged to take any action, which is a big obstacle to finding any solution to the haze problem. Most of the fires come from Indonesia, and also at this point in time the winds are blowing in our direction. Someone jokingly said the winds are not blowing in the direction of Jakarta, so they are not bothered. Secondly, the treaty is quite useless and not worth the paper it is written on. It’s just a PR (public relations) exercise to placate the public.
All Asean conventions and treaties rely on compliance by the governments of the various countries that are party to them. Indonesia had previously declined help from foreigners, who offered them help with the haze. They become very nationalistic and question why foreigners are going over there. Yet, they accept foreign investments in their plantations.
No Asean treaty gives a country extra-territorial rights over another country, and that highlights another problem with Asean: that there has to be a consensus on everything and this impedes enforcement.
Question: According to a recent AFP report, an Indonesian official blamed Singaporean and Malaysian-owned oil palm companies for contributing to the haze. What is your view on this?
Answer: Even if the plantations in Indonesia, which are allegedly fouling the environment, are owned by Malaysian and Singaporean companies, they are subject to Indonesian laws and they should be dealt with accordingly. There’s another example of lack of enforcement. Our laws don’t extend to Indonesia.
Question: This August, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand will attend the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee to resolve the haze problem, according to the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry. What is your view on this development?
Answer: That’s two months away and too late because the peat soil would have caught fire by then. Besides, if the Asean treaty is not binding on them, the most you can do is to appeal to the goodwill of Indonesia. For me, the priority is to put the fires out and not to start any more fires.
Question: How can the Asean countries engage more effectively with Indonesia?
Answer: They need to work at two levels. Go right to the top and the provincial level at Sumatra. They need to persuade the Indonesian government to ratify the treaty so that they have a national obligation, which will then be transferred and executed accordingly at the provincial level.
Question: What then is the way forward in dealing with transboundary haze in Southeast Asia?
Answer: There has to be proper planning and means of implemention at the Asean level but (it) also requires commitment from each individual country within Asean in tackling air pollution in their own countries. Everything that brings air pollution down will also bring the haze down.