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Jakarta Post

Governing the risk of haze and ASEAN diplomacy

  • Jonatan A. Lassa

    The Jakarta Post

Kupang   /   Fri, June 28, 2013   /  09:52 am

The haze of Riau today offers a perfect example of transboundary risk in ASEAN. As the haze has not only affected Indonesia but also Singapore and Malaysia, the question is, what can ASEAN do?

Indonesia will not deal with the transboundary haze pollution through the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. One of the main reasons is that Indonesia would have to deal with the cost associated with ratifying the agreement. While the other ASEAN member states might have signed the agreement because they had nothing to lose by ratifying it.

The June 2013 transboundary haze episode reminds us of the lesson from the devastating haze episode of 1997/1998 from fire burning in Kalimantan and Sumatra. Some estimates suggest that at least 5 million hectares of forest were burned by fire and 70 million people affected by the haze.

For Indonesia alone, the total loss could have reached more than US$4.5 billion (or as much as the total economic loss for Aceh'€™s Indian Ocean Tsunami). For Singapore, as the haze lasted for more than two months, the 1997/98 haze caused a total loss of between $8 to 11 billion (according to some estimates).

The 2013 haze marks the 10th occurrence of trans-boundary haze since the 1970s. For 2013, Singapore has claimed to suffer from economic losses estimated at $1 billion a week. Some extra government spending on health must also be rising. As air pollution index reaches 400, Singapore has ordered not only its citizens, but also foreigners to stay indoors.

If there is no rain in Riau, Singapore'€™s economy could be '€œjeopardized'€ in coming weeks. Very visible risks include delays and disruption to the supply chain and cargo movement at Singapore ports, a significant decline in the tourism sector and increased health spending associated with the haze.

Recurrent transboundary hazards such as haze from burning forest fires are often too easily politicized. Politicians blame each other. Indonesian politicians have been busy with statements about whether they needed to apologize or not.

Given the fact that our economy is connected to the global supply chain, we have also suffered economic losses. Singapore is not the only loser as we are all losers on different scales.

The problem is, no one in Indonesia has calculated the total cost associated with the haze. Exporters and importers must have some details. If there are substantial delays and disruption of agricultural fresh foods from North Sumatra, Riau and other areas for export to Singapore and other countries, they are likely to become rotten.

This causes substantial losses for all the farmers in the hinterland of Sumatra (including Kalimantan and Java) as their exports may be dependent on the ports of Singapore. Indonesian exports include hundreds of types of goods and commodities.

Therefore, Indonesia must have also experienced losses as a result of supply chain delays and disruptions because its exports often depend on Singapore ports.

For almost a century, substantial amounts of rubber and other agricultural products exported from Indonesia have had to be transshipped through Singapore ports.

The fire burning of June 2013 should not be seen as natural. Following Greenpeace'€™s claim that native firms from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia may have been involved in triggering the fires, the government of Singapore has considered taking legal action against the companies involved.

During 1997/1998, some claims (including from scientific analysis) suggested that the fires were natural events, but unnatural disasters like land clearing for the '€œgolden crops'€, such as palm oil expansion often practice uncontrolled burning, which escalates and becomes catastrophic.

Debates will question the effectiveness of Indonesia'€™s forest governance practice in Sumatra (Riau) which releases high levels of carbon. For the fire burning of 1997, in a letter to Nature Magazine in 2002, Susan E. Page and her colleagues (of University of Leicester) estimated between 0.81 and 2.57 Gt of carbon was released into the atmosphere.

The fact that Indonesian officials blamed Singaporean firms operating in Riau cannot be justified because as a sovereign state, the government can create mega disincentives for the irresponsible firms, or impose stricter enforcement of forest clearing practices regardless of the origin of the firms.

Top Indonesian officials need to demonstrate good disaster diplomacy by being more proactive to solve the problems and show empathy not only to the neighboring countries but also to probably hundreds of thousands of Indonesians whose livelihoods have been affected.

The Indonesian president can also show that he can deal with any disaster crisis, not only those associated with tsunamis and earthquakes. In fact, Indonesia could show leadership by developing a model for trans-boundary haze early warning systems in ASEAN.

The ASEAN framework for dealing with haze is toothless as long as Indonesia refuses to ratify.

However, other ASEAN mechanisms can be used because the haze issue is also testing the often praised achievements of ASEAN members, which have been very active in the ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management.

ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Disaster Management is carried out annually. ASEAN must show that they not only can cooperate in a real crisis and emergency like the haze, but also respond in a timely way.

Therefore, rather than pushing Indonesia to sign the haze agreement, ASEAN can temporarily extend the existing disaster management agreement to include the haze risk management.

Past catastrophes must provide a legitimate reason for ASEAN'€™s early action in haze prevention. Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia now can show that by spending a few tens of millions of dollars a year to reduce the risk of haze (including investment in institutional building for haze management), they could save billions of dollars. ASEAN must turn its eyes to its member states'€™ pockets to solve the problem of haze.

ASEAN must also create new ways to tackle haze through different mechanisms, including climate mitigation funds (through fire mitigation) and disaster management mechanism. It is time for the rich ASEAN member states to strengthen and deepen its disaster management diplomacy.

Singapore and Malaysia should also provide extra allocation on a regular basis to support haze mitigation through multiple means of forest governance and disaster governance '€” such as working through global governance and a set of bilateral deals.

The writer is a research fellow at IRGSC ( '€“ a think tank based in Kupang. He holds a PhD in disaster risk governance from the University of Bonn, Germany.

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