The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Transboundary haze: regional efforts may help, but the solution lies with Indonesia

Posted in Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters by NTSblog on September 28, 2012

The National Environmental Agency has recently announced that it will implement a range of new measures to improve national air quality standards by 2020. These measures largely concern domestic sources of air pollution but will also address international causes of poor air quality; with a specific focus upon transboundary (TB) haze. This new policy is a step in the right direction, creating more effective ways of monitoring and measuring haze levels. Despite this progress, the extent to which Singapore can impact the trajectory of the haze is limited, and the crux of efforts to combat TB haze remains with Indonesia. In light of possibility that the fires and haze may worsen over time, and considering the difficulties Indonesia faces in addressing this problem, Singapore should amplify involvement in regional efforts to facilitate action in Indonesia.

The source of TB haze in the region is primarily forest fires in Indonesia, generally deliberately lit for the purposes of land clearing and soil rejuvenation for agriculture. Environmental conditions (including El Nino) impact the scale of the fires and the spread of the haze, notably the strength and direction of winds, and the incidence of rain. Research is currently being conducted to determine how climate change may affect the incidence and scale of fires in Indonesia. Although it is too early to determine exactly what these effects may be, it is likely that warmer temperatures and changing precipitation patterns will exacerbate fires and increase haze levels. There is also evidence to suggest that climate change may influence the frequency and severity of the El Nino effect (although understanding of this relationship is immature).

As experienced in Singapore, repercussions of the haze include public health issues, tensions in diplomatic relations, and economic losses. Singapore has attempted to engage with Indonesia on this issue, notably through efforts in Jambi province, but success has been limited. ASEAN has also responded to this problem, developing various measures to address the problem. Despite bilateral and regional efforts, however, the haze continues to plague Singapore and the wider region almost annually. This is due to a combination of ASEAN’s limited organisational capacity to enforce policies, and Indonesia’s lack of capacity and will to address the root sources of the problem on a national level, or with regional or bilateral assistance. Factors that limit Indonesia’s will or capacity to address the problem include:

  • Growing demand for cash crops that are typically grown on deforested land, and make a significant contribution to Indonesia’s GDP
  • Difficulties in measuring externalities created by this type of agriculture, leading to the perception that the benefits of forest burning outweigh the incentives to stop
  • Geographical context, including the size of forested areas, and difficulties in monitoring forestry activities from the ground
  • Insufficient legal frameworks to create and enforce forestry policies on national and local levels
These assessments suggest that forest burning and the resultant haze are likely to continue and potentially worsen. Considering these projections, and the scale and scope of problems resulting from fires and haze, Singapore should redouble engagement efforts both regionally and with Indonesia directly.

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