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Haze Crisis in Southeast Asia (and China)

by Yanzhong Huang
June 24, 2013

An aerial view of burning lands in Palalawan district in Riau province June 21, 2013. An aerial view of burning lands in Palalawan district in Riau province June 21, 2013. Indonesia deployed military planes to fight raging forest fires on Friday that blanketed neighbouring Singapore in record levels of hazardous smog for a third straight day in one of Southeast Asia's worst air-pollution crises. (Fikih Nauli//Courtesy Reuters)

Having just arrived in Jakarta for a joint CSIS-CFR workshop on emerging Indonesia and rising regionalism, I was greeted by hot and humid weather conditions and horrible traffic. However, this is nothing compared to the severe haze that has blanketed Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, Malaysia, and Singapore, sending air pollution there to record high levels.

The haze problem is nothing new. To those who live in Singapore and Malaysia, this has become an annual blight caused by farmers in Sumatra clearing forests to make land for crops. The last major regional haze outbreak occurred in 1997-98. But this time, the thick haze has broken the Pollutant Standards Index records and hit “hazard” levels in the region, and Singapore has threatened to take action.

The slash and burn cultivation can be traced to when agriculture was first developed thousands of years ago. According to historian William McNeill, this cultivation method multiplied breeding places for mosquitoes and gave malaria a new, epidemic intensity. It is no wonder that malaria and dengue fever—both of which are transmitted by mosquitoes—are such a major concern in Southeast Asia. The farming practice is not confined to Sumatra, either. Indeed, a similar practice is becoming a growing contributor to severe haze in some Chinese provinces. Two weeks ago, when travelling on the high-speed train to Beijing, I was struck by the sudden drop of visibility, which was caused by farmers in central Anhui province burning straw along the railway.

Given the spread of haze to neighboring countries, one would expect that the affected countries would work together to address the crisis.  Instead, we’ve seen the rekindling of old diplomatic disputes and intensified finger pointing among governments, NGOs, and the private sector. Last Thursday, Indonesia accused Singapore of “behaving like a child” and asked for significant financial aid in order to tackle the issue. However, this action is no surprise. The 1997-98 haze crisis has not led to effective cooperation over environmental issues. Countries in the region seem to be determined to protect their sovereignty irrespective of the implications that this may have for the wider region. They might be actively pursuing bilateral cooperation over a particular regional threat (e.g., a pandemic), but the residual lack of trust among them, coupled with the principle of non-interference, makes it difficult to pursue effective multilateralism or forge a real sense of partnership.

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