Firefighters work to extinguish a peatland fire in Indonesia’s South Sumatra province last month. Photo: Xinhua
As I see it
by Joseph Sipalan
As I see it
by Joseph Sipalan

Indonesia’s been making headway on haze. Is it a sign of clearer skies to come for Southeast Asia?

  • Indonesia has made ‘substantial progress’ preventing and suppressing forest fires amid the pandemic, according to a new Haze Outlook report
  • It means Singapore and Malaysia can breathe a little easier, for now – but they have little recourse should the choking smog return to 2019 levels

Every cloud has a silver lining, so the saying goes.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, hundreds of millions of people across Southeast Asia had their lives put on hold as regional governments – like elsewhere in the world – were forced to make hard decisions to contain the spread of Covid-19, at the expense of their country’s economies, businesses and citizens’ personal liberties.

But for the first time in a long time, there was no haze.

Haze shrouds Singapore in September 2019. Photo: Bloomberg
Slightly more than 450,000 hectares of forest in Indonesia – the primary source of the region’s haze – were razed between 2020 and last year, a sharp drop from the more than 1.6 million hectares that were scorched in 2019, according to the Singapore Institute of International Affairs’ (SIIA) Haze Outlook 2022 report.
Uncontrolled forest fires linked to the expansion of agricultural and plantation land in the Indonesian provinces of Sumatra and Kalimantan were blamed for the thick smog that blanketed northern Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in 2019, causing a spike in respiratory infections and school closures.
In 2015, the fires were so bad that the ensuing haze caused more than 100,000 premature deaths across all three countries, according to a 2016 joint study by Harvard and Columbia universities.

Why can’t Southeast Asia snuff out its haze problem for good?

A key reason for the recurring haze has long been Indonesia’s aggressive expansion of its oil palm plantations, involving the clearing of vast tracts of forest and exposing peatlands – which scientists say store significant amounts of carbon – to the risk of fire.

Indonesia, the world’s largest palm oil exporter, has taken some steps to address related carbon emission concerns. It is a signatory to the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, and in 2019 barred the clearing of primary forests for oil palm plantations.

It has also empowered provincial administrators to cancel the licences of oil palm plantation operators found to have violated local laws and regulations.

But there is little recourse for Indonesia’s neighbours should the haze return. Asean’s haze pact is hampered by the “ Asean way” of consensus-seeking, which means nothing can be done without all 10 members’ say-so.

And despite the transnational nature of Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, there is not much the island state can do to punish perpetrators without Jakarta’s consent.

Which leads us back to Indonesia and what it can, and will, do to manage the situation.

SIIA’s Haze Outlook noted that Indonesia made “substantial progress” in achieving its fire prevention and suppression targets last year.

The hope is that this isn’t just a blip on the chart, but a sign of clearer skies for years to come.