From: Reuters
Published October 10, 2006 12:00 AM

Asian Nations to Find Ways to Tackle Haze

Southeast Asian environment ministers plan to meet soon to thrash out strategies to help Indonesia extinguish forest fires causing a choking smog across the region.

Following are some facts about the haze.

WHO'S TO BLAME?

- Land clearing and burning the debris in the April-October dry season has been part of the Indonesian and Malaysian farming life for centuries.

- In recent decades, the population has risen sharply on Sumatra and Borneo islands, creating ever more demand for land to grow cash-crops in resource-rich but impoverished Indonesia.

- Timber companies, illegal loggers and palm oil companies also conduct annual land clearing in Indonesia and parts of Malaysia.

WHAT ARE THE IMPACTS?

- Severe haze has affected the tourism, shipping, airline, health and retail sectors over the years.

- During a severe drought in 1997-98, huge fires on Sumatra and Borneo created the region's worst haze crisis in living memory, blanketing large parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei as well as southern Thailand.

- More than 40,000 people were hospitalised with respiratory and other haze-related ailments, tourist numbers plunged, transport was disrupted, including along the busy Strait of Malacca. In total, the 1997-98 haze crisis is believed to have cost the region about $9 billion.

The fires burnt a vast area, estimated to be the size of Costa Rica. The United Nations Environment Programme described the blazes as among the most damaging in recorded history.

ADDING TO ENVIRONMENTAL RISKS

- The annual fires release huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

- Large areas of drained peat bogs in Kalimantan have been burned in recent years. Once these catch fire, peat bogs can burn for years.

HOW TO TACKLE IT?

- Galvanised by the 1997-98 fires, Southeast Asian countries signed the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2002.

- Regional action plans have been created, such as joint fire-fighting efforts and cloud seeding. Monitoring has greatly improved, but lax enforcement, corruption and poor resources have confounded efforts to curb the fires. The agreement does not provide for any regional enforcement mechanism.

- Brunei, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam have ratified the agreement but Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines have not.

- Malaysia complains that Indonesia's failure to ratify the pact has compounded the problem. Indonesia blames Malaysian-owned palm-oil plantations both in Indonesia and in Malaysia for contributing to the haze.

HOW IS AIR POLLUTION MEASURED?

- The U.S.-developed Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) -- now known as the Air Quality Index -- has been adopted by most Southeast Asian nations. Its scale runs from 0 to 500.

- Readings of between 0 and 50 are considered to be good and 50-100 moderate. A reading of 101-200 is classed as "unhealthy", 201-300 "very unhealthy" and 300 and above "hazardous".

- Malaysia uses a slightly different indicator called the Air Pollutant Index (API), whose values can exceed 500. When this happens, a state of emergency is declared in the reporting area.

Sources: Reuters; ASEAN Haze Action Online; WWF International; Singapore National Environment Agency (www.nea.gov.sg); Malaysian Department of Environment (www.doe.gov.my).


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