HAZE: Prepare for the worst
Smog from forest fires, which costs Southeast Asian economies billions in lost tourist dollars, could worsen as changing weather patterns cause an unusually dry spell, the Region’s Environment Ministers warned yesterday. The effects of the La Nina weather phenomenon are expected to wear off in the third quarter of this year, which could result in arid conditions, the Ministers said, quoting a forecast from the Asean Meteorological Centre. “This could lead to drier periods and the possibility of escalating hotspot activities during the coming dry season,” Environment Ministers from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Brunei said in a statement. La Nina refers to an abnormal cooling of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, while its counterpart El Nino refers to a warming of surface temperatures. Since 1997, peat and forest fires in Indonesia’s Sumatra and Borneo Islands have triggered a choking haze which billows across the Region, affecting Singapore, Malaysia and parts of Thailand. The Asean Ministers had gathered in the Malaysian administrative Capital ‘to discuss the haze, which usually occurs around mid-year as farmers and timber and plantation firms in the region openly burn plots of land ahead of the planting season. Asean, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, groups Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and The Philippines. “We have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Indonesian Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar told reporters. “We are not going to delude ourselves that we are going to wipe out all the haze. There will be some burning, some haze.” Near-annual bouts of haze have made many people ill across a wide area of Southeast Asia, cost local economies billions of dollars and badly hit the tourism and airline sectors. Singapore appealed to tourists not to avoid the Region during the period as has happened in the past. Southeast Asia is a magnet for big-spending visitors from the Middle East in July and August, as they seek to escape the scorching summer back home. “Please come and visit the region,” Singapore Environment Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said. Rachmat said Indonesia is confident of reducing the number of illegal fires or “hot spots” this year, saying they had been reduced by 51 percent in 2007 in key provinces and this pace of improvement should continue. “We are consolidating our efforts and working together with our neighbours,” he said. “We have significantly reduced the number of hot spots in both Kalimantan and Sumatra since last year, and we hope to maintain this trend in 2008 with cooperation from our neighbours.” Indonesia has yet to ratify a regional treaty charted in 2002 on preventing the haze. Indonesia and The Philippines are the only members of Asean which would compel Indonesia to create a strict zero-burning policy. The haze hit its worst level in 1997-98, costing the region an estimated nine billion dollars by disrupting air travel, tourism and other business activities as smoke enveloped the region. The five nations again meet on the issue on June 26 in Singapore.