Haze that engulfed Kuala Lumpur in 2003. Photo by servus. Creative commons licence.
Haze that engulfed Kuala Lumpur in 2003. Photo by servus. Creative commons licence.

The haze is no foreigner to our country, in fact, it is a visitor that comes by annually, uninvited, and fills our days with thick fog, low visibility and a burning stench.

The worst haze that we have encountered by far was in 2005, eight years after the incident in 1997 which blanketed most of Southeast Asia. The highest air pollution index (API) readings for both events were reported to be around 500 and 839 respectively, both exceeding the emergency threshold and into the hazardous level. Schools, private offices and non-essential government sectors in several areas were asked to shut down temporarily until the air quality normalised.

Now, in 2015, the API readings have gone beyond 200 (very unhealthy level) and Education Minister Mahdzir Khalid has issued a statement that all schools in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Melaka and Negeri Sembilan will be closed on Tuesday (15 September). Several states in Indonesia have declared emergency while Singapore’s Formula One race is at risk of getting cancelled.

Schools in Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Putrajaya, Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Tawau, Kuching and Samarahan have been ordered to close since 19 October for four days due to the worsening air quality. Most of the schools have been reopened, except for schools in the northern parts of Malaysia, where the API reading has not shown much improvement.

The haze has also reached the Philippines as well as Southern Thailand, where hospitals were alerted, schools were closed down and flights had to be cancelled.

However, things are slightly worse in Indonesia. In South Sumatra, a group of residents have come together to file a lawsuit against the companies involved in the forest fires which have caused the haze, namely Asia Agri, Golden Agri Resources, Wilmar, Sime Darby and Asia Pulp and Paper. The notice is expected to reach the companies by the end of this month, and these residents are claiming a total of 51 trillion rupiah (US$ 3.5 billion) in losses.

On top of that, the Indonesian government is also preparing warships, ferries and evacuation plans especially for the children in Kalimantan and Sumatra area.

So how have ASEAN countries tried to deal with the haze?

In 2013, The Edge Review released a report that Malaysia and Indonesia have struck a deal to keep critical information about the haze from their neighbouring countries. This move angered Singapore, Thailand and Brunei, all of which were also victims to the haze. However, during ASEAN Summit in the same year, ASEAN leaders, including Malaysia and Indonesia, have agreed to adopt ASEAN Sub-Regional Monitoring System, a system where they will share satellite data to help them locate fires and determine when the fires are occurring.

Singapore and Malaysia have both sent aircrafts to Palembang in Indonesia. As of 11 October, seven helicopters and three aircrafts from the three countries have been conducting water bombing and cloudseeding to help fight the forest fires.

Besides that, Singapore has urged fellow ASEAN members to take decisive action against the forest fires incident, which has been described as “a crime against humanity.” According to Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, legal actions must be taken against the companies responsible for the haze, which has killed 10 in Indonesia and caused respiratory problems to over half a million people.

A two-day summit will be held on 19 November in Kuala Lumpur and while the agenda has yet to be released, diplomatic sources say that the haze will be a big part of the discussion.

Are there any other policies shared across ASEAN about the haze?

In 2014, Indonesia finally joined the other nine ASEAN countries by ratifying the ASEAN agreement on Trans-boundary Haze Pollution. They were the last country to sign the agreement, twelve years after it was first drawn up. According the agreement, the parties involved must cooperate to develop and implement to prevent, monitor and mitigate trans-boundary haze pollution.

Under the Trans-boundary Haze Pollution Act, firms found to be causing or contributing to the haze can be fined up to S$100,000 (RM307,320) a day, and capped at S$2 million.

What else is Indonesia doing to combat the haze?

Despite the increasingly strict regulations imposed, forest fires are still rapidly occurring in Indonesia and is still the number one cause of the southeast Asia haze that we are currently experiencing. On 6 September this year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited South Sumatra to personally review the situation. He ordered the Forestry Ministry to revoke the licenses of those found guilty of causing the fire. According to the National Disaster and Management Agency (BNMP), soldiers are currently patrolling the fire-prone areas to ensure that no more incidents could occur to worsen the haze.

What have other countries done to reduce the source of the haze?

Singapore has extended an offer to help Indonesia, however, Indonesia’s Minister of Environment and Forestry, Dr. Siti Nurbaya has rejected the offer and stated that they have deployed their resources to combat the situation. According to her, they have conducted water bombing in Riau, South Sumatra and Jambi as well as cloud-seeding in South Sumatra. She has agreed to provide Singapore with a list of companies that are suspected to be behind the fires.

Two Russian multipurpose jet planes arrived on Sumatra island on 21 October to help put out the fires. According to Indonesia’s National Agency Mitigation Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the planes were sent by Russia’s Emergencies Ministry. It can drop 12.5 tons of water and it is also able to suck 3,500 gallons of water from rivers in a matter of seconds.

How have private companies and NGOs reacted?

Some Singapore-based firms have made it a point to stop deforestation and hold their suppliers to the same standards. These firms include Wilmar International, Golden Agri Resources and Asia Pulp and Paper.

WWF Singapore, on the other hand, has collaborated with People’s Movement to Stop Haze and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs to launch a public campaign called “We Breathe What We Buy.” The campaign aims to educate the public on the products made from palm oil, and to encourage them to buy from sustainable sources.

Dhabitah Zainal

First published 15 September 2015, Updated 26 October 2015.

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