Haze, Haze Go Away

It is that time of the year again.

It is hot, dry and the schools are closed as though it is the summer holidays.

The Westerners equipped themselves with bikinis and trunks while the Southeast Asians were prepared with breathing masks.

The lowlands looks like it is shrouded with mist; except that it is shrouded with haze.

The haze crisis in Malaysia and Southeast Asia is not something new.

The first appearance of haze in Malaysia was probably decades ago.

In recent years, the crisis has gotten more often with the problem happening almost every year, just a matter of different degrees of seriousness. It does not happen only in one country. It is a transboundary issue mainly across Southeast Asia.

The major haze crisis began in 1997, when the haze covered most parts of Southeast Asia, whereby Kuching recorded an Air Pollutant Index (API) of 860 during that period.

2006 recorded another round of a major haze issue when the effects can be felt as far as South Korea. The occurrences of El Nino made the problem worse during that year.

The 2013 haze was considered one of the worst that Southeast Asians have experienced. That year was notable as the haze caused record high levels of pollution in several cities. The API in Singapore reached a record high of 401 on 21 June 2013. On 23 June 2013, the API in Muar increased to 746 which caused the declaration of emergency in that city in the south of Malaysia.

We faced another year of crisis in 2015 when a serious level of haze hit again. Flights were disrupted, education institutions were closed, many had to seek medical assistance for respiratory issues. That year alone, the Indonesian Government estimated that the haze crisis would cost about US$35-47 billion to mitigate.

What makes the matter important and should be highlighted is that it is not a natural disaster. It is caused by humans. The haze is largely caused by illegal agricultural fires due to industrial-scale slash and burn practices in Southeast Asia particularly Indonesia and Malaysia. Apparently burned land can be sold at a higher price illegally, and eventually used for activities including palm oil and pulpwood production. Burning is also cheaper and faster compared to cutting and clearing manually.

Despite losing billions of dollars annually due to the haze crisis; despite having talks and discussions every time the haze appears; we still couldn’t solve the issue. Haze still keeps coming up every year, because of human greed.

Lack of action and political will to tackle the cause of the haze especially towards the planters that use the slash and burn techniques to clear the forests has been causing the unstoppable issue.

It is time for the Southeast Asian countries to collaborate together with the Indonesian Government to act against the culprit of the companies that are causing fires across the region. One obvious action that perhaps we are not tough enough against the Indonesian Government and companies that are causing the fires and pollution.

Although the Southeast Asian countries have ratified the ASEAN agreement on transboundary haze pollution, it was criticised for not being effective.

The agreement was deemed as lacking enforcement mechanisms. This is due to the official system of rules that informs this agreement is the ‘ASEAN way’ of diplomatic conduct. This basically means that the countries in ASEAN shall not interfere with another country and are expected to act in their own self-interest respectively.

Furthermore, by looking at the commitment of the ratification of the agreement, Indonesia which is the main contributor of the haze is the last country to ratify in 2014; 12 years after it was first introduced in 2002. We should be proud that Malaysia is the first country to ratify the agreement.

But with the haze crisis remaining despite the agreement, perhaps our Malaysian Government must take the act to another level. A law must be set to take action against the culprits of the pollution. A good example is the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act which is implemented by the Singaporean Parliament that criminalizes conduct which causes or contributes to haze pollution in Singapore.

If there is still lack of awareness and will in our region, maybe we will need a Greta Thunberg of Southeast Asia to remind people to make history and stop haze from happening again.