TRANSBOUNDARY haze pollution, such as the one currently affecting Indonesia and Malaysia, is a threat to their respective environmental security and poses a serious health hazard to their populations.
The Roadmap on Asean Cooperation Towards Transboundary Haze Pollution Control stated that previous episodes of haze caused damage to the countries’ ecology, crop productivity and transportation; as well as “serious declines in tourism business and slower growth in trade and investment”.
This problem, which started in 1983, became an annual phenomenon beginning in 1992, with the most severe episode occurring in 1997 when Sarawak recorded an Air Pollutant Index reading of 750 and a visibility of 50 metres.
Hence, Indonesia on Sept 26, 1997 declared the severe forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra as “a national disaster”. Three days later, Malaysia declared an emergency in Sarawak and most cities in Peninsular Malaysia due to the serious haze that engulfed the region. This securitisation enabled Malaysia to take several short-and long-term measures to mitigate the haze problem through administrative and diplomatic activities at the domestic and bilateral levels.
FIRSTLY, Malaysia mobilised 2,000 firefighters and its SMART team to put off fires in various Indonesian regions; and ordered the Royal Malaysian Air Force to assist in cloud seeding operations in the affected localities.
SECONDLY, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad warned 17 Malaysian logging and plantation companies in Indonesia to put out the fire in their concessions, or the Malaysian authorities would deal with them accordingly.
The Mahathir administration 1.0 also formed a disaster management committee, introduced policies on disaster management and haze control, as well as reactivated its National Haze Plan.
On Dec 11, 1998, Malaysia and Indonesia signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly mitigate future transboundary haze phenomena through exchange of information and expertise, joint training on disaster management, and experience sharing on public health awareness.
On April 1, 1998, Malaysia and Brunei concluded an agreement to mitigate forest fires along their common border; and on April 4, 1998, Asean Environment Ministers at their meeting in Brunei, set up the Sub-Regional Fire Fighting Arrangements.
Similar arrangements for Kalimantan and Sumatra/Riau regions were also agreed upon, with Malaysia as the coordinator.
The above mechanisms showed that Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei had since 1998, securitised transborder haze problem as a security threat to be jointly managed through extra- ordinary approaches based on the spirit of Asean interdependency.
Consequently, Asean member states collectively securitised this threat through the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP), signed in Kuala Lumpur on June 10, 2002.
This agreement was aimed at preventing, monitoring and mitigating land and forest fires to control transboundary haze pollution through concerted national efforts and via regional and international cooperation.
In September 2013, Asean set up its Task Force on Peatlands (ATFP) to assist “in monitoring and supporting the implementation of the Asean Peatland Management Strategy (APMS)”.
As such, Asean had actually formulated a proper framework of cooperation and standard operating procedure to mitigate transboundary haze pollution in the region, being constructed in line with the universal findings that such a phenomenon bears political and scientific agendas.
In the context of Asean, this political agenda focused on decisions, policies and approaches to mitigate the haze problem, unilaterally or between states; as well as devising cooperation in tackling its impact to the affected peoples and their economic activities. It also identified the causes of the problem, ascertaining the degree of its intensity, setting priorities of the approaches to solving it and coordinating the steps to resolve it.
The scientific agenda deals with numerous research concerning the problem, and prescribing the scientific methods to mitigate its impact on the people and the environment.
Hence, it was only proper that for the past few weeks Malaysian and Indonesian authorities had unilaterally acted to mitigate the current haze problem within their own sovereign limits to stop its impact on thousands of people.
However, it is also imperative for Asean to swiftly convene a special meeting of its committee of haze control to iron out several glitches arising from the current problems and to facilitate its mitigation activities at the regional level. This is critical since there are allegations that the problem was started by several Malaysian operators of oil palm estates and pulp plantations in Indonesia which were said to be conducting open burning in their concession areas.
However, we are puzzled: why does Asean appear “cold” to the current problem; why is the problem not being swiftly handled through the available mechanisms; and why are certain parties seen as creating unnecessary tensions out of it?
In conclusion, questions should be raised on what caused the glitches; why are relevant regional authorities seemingly unaware of the Asean mechanisms in dealing with it; and how long more should this haze phenomenon be allowed to persist?
The writer is a student of strategic and security studies, and was a member of parliament for Parit Sulong, Johor, 1990-2003