Imagine stepping out of your house and immediately noticing thick clouds of smoke accompanied by a noxious smell. After a while, you start experiencing eye irritations and having breathing difficulties. The uncomfortable sensations are further exacerbated by sweltering heat—with temperatures in the 90s and humidity levels of 80-90%. Out on the streets, people can be seen wearing surgical face masks while buildings in the background are shrouded in thick smog. Up above, the sun has turned eerily red. It seems like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic movie.
This is a common experience during the annual season of haze in Southeast Asia. Depending on external factors, it may last from one to four months. It has been occurring every single year since 1982, and has become more severe over the years.
The haze is attributed to forest and peatland fires caused by plantation companies and small-scale farmers in Indonesia who employ slash-and-burn land clearing for palm oil and pulpwood plantations. Indonesia is home to the world’s largest palm oil industry, a lucrative $21 billion a year business that accounts for about 5% of the country’s GDP.
The haze problem has directly impacted an entire generation of people in Southeast Asia.
This year’s agriculture fires have been identified as the second worst on record since 1997, and they have elicited a public health emergency: 19 people have died, half a million have reported acute respiratory illnesses and over 43 million have been inhaling toxic air.
The problem is not confined to Indonesia alone. The smoky haze has also blanketed neighboring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, prompting health warnings, school closures, flight cancellations and business disruptions. According to the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, the haze will cost the region roughly $14 billion in health, environmental and economic damages.
The World Resource Institute (WRI) ranked Indonesia the world’s sixth worst greenhouse gas emitter last year. The Emmy Award-winning documentary, “Years of Living Dangerously,” has claimed that the fires could be the worst climate crisis in the world right now. Based on an analysis by Bloomberg, in the past two months Indonesia’s average daily emissions have exceeded those of China on at least 14 days, while its monthly emissions have exceeded those in the U.S.
Despite the severity of the issue, the Indonesian government lacks the political willpower to resolve it. The country has a national forest moratorium and strict plantation laws that prohibit burning, but enforcement has been inadequate and most companies continue to flout the law because of their strong political clout. Each year, the government responds to the haze in a very reactive manner, and preventive actions aren’t taken prior to the burning season.
The Indonesian government has also been reluctant to cooperate with other partners from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). As a prime example, it took Indonesia 12 long years to finally ratify ASEAN’s Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution just last year. Moreover, Indonesia is unwilling to share its latest concession maps, which will be crucial in identifying the culprits. Until only recently, Indonesia had even rejected offers from Singapore and Malaysia to help combat the fires.
Although the Indonesian government has submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) for the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, there is no explicit mention of fire prevention post-2016. As such, the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2020 rings hollow, as avoiding forest fires is absolutely critical to meeting the target.
By all accounts, the Indonesian government should be held fully responsible for the haze. At the end of September, President Joko Widodo had told the BBC that his government would require at least three years to resolve the problem. Unfortunately, desperate citizens, neighboring countries and the global community do not have the luxury of time and are fed up with waiting.
Diplomacy and cooperation with the Indonesian government are no longer effective modes of engagement to stop the haze. ASEAN must create mechanisms to impose sanctions and punitive measures on the repeat offender. Importantly, the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution must be amended to confer member countries with enforcement powers.
International organizations such as the World Bank must hit the Indonesian government where it hurts the most by suspending financing for projects. World leaders must convey an unequivocally strong message to Indonesia during the upcoming Paris Climate Conference to tackle the haze or risk losing political and economic support.
The haze problem has directly impacted an entire generation of people in Southeast Asia, and has contributed significantly to global warming. If we want to prevent this man-made disaster from happening again next year, we will need the Indonesian government to act, once and for all.