Forest fires are a major source of transboundary haze in the ASEAN region. It is particularly pronounced in the dry season during the first half of the year for the Mekong subregion and second half of the year, most notably from July to September, for the southern ASEAN region.
The ASEAN region contains over half of the world’s peatland, a valuable ecosystem critical for preserving global biodiversity and storing carbon. However, peat soils, which are rich in organic matter, are vulnerable to fires. These fires create toxic smoke that covers large areas of the region, poses serious health hazards and emits tons of greenhouse gases.
In 2019, the region experienced prolonged drier-than-normal conditions, which led to the significant increase of hot spots, deterioration of air quality and widespread haze over many parts of the ASEAN region. The ASEAN ministers in charge of transboundary haze pollution expressed concerns over the severity and geographical spread of the haze affecting various ASEAN countries.
This year, through its seasonal forecast, the ASEAN Specialized Meteorological Center (ASMC) announced that for the dry season during the July-September period, some parts of the region, especially areas that are fire prone, may experience above normal temperatures on occasion. This could result in a higher risk of land and/or forest fires and subsequently lead to transboundary haze pollution.
The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) has also urged people to prepare for the dry season, estimated to peak in August. Although it is expected to be less severe than last year, extended periods of dry weather would escalate hot spots on the ground, which may lead to the occurrence of land or forest fires.
With the current global health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial for ASEAN to step up preparations and be in a better position to handle the potential risk of fire and transboundary haze. This will be necessary to mitigate the possible double burden on healthcare systems in ASEAN in managing COVID-19 and also health issues brought about by the haze.
Haze pollution in ASEAN incurs a high human cost, resulting in an estimated 36,000 premature deaths per year. Exposure to air pollutants causes difficulty in breathing, aggravates asthma and increases respiratory symptoms in children and older persons.
This can be particularly challenging as the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a sharp decline in regional growth and the possibility for an onset of a recession in 2020. A number of nonhealth sectors may face a decrease in government revenues and budget cuts.
Through the regional cooperative mechanisms established under the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP) framework, ASEAN has long been committed to addressing transboundary haze at the national, regional and international levels. Solutions and effective mechanisms have been tried and tested over the years.
Based on experience, it is clear that there is a need for greater efforts toward vigilance, preparedness and early mobilization of emergency response actions to mitigate fires during the dry season.
Unfortunately, seasonal fires and transboundary haze remain a problem in our region and the ASEAN community must be prepared. ASEAN needs to prioritize the urgent establishment of the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control (ACC THPC), which would facilitate coordination and communication among ASEAN member states on prevention and emergency responses to forest fires and transboundary haze pollution.
There is also a need to strengthen policies and practices at the national and local government levels to address the causes and effects of haze pollution. It is important to note that while intergovernmental cooperation is important, the government will not be able to address this challenge alone.
Lessons from other sectors in ASEAN and other regions show that it is equally important to engage and leverage the private sector. The private sector plays an important role in maximizing the long-term benefits of peatland and forest through their business models, using innovation and advanced technology.
There is also need to engage local communities and the media to educate people, especially the young generation, about the need to protect and sustainably manage ASEAN’s valuable peatland and forest resources.
Deputy secretary-general of ASEAN for ASEAN sociocultural community
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.