Combating Haze in ASEAN: Frequently Asked Questions

How serious is the transboundary haze pollution problem in ASEAN?

Major episodes of fire and transboundary haze pollution occurred in the region during the1980s and 1990s. The blaze of 1997-1998, which affected Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, was among the most damaging in recorded history. More than 9 million hectares of land were burnt, 6.5 million of which were forested areas. The damage was estimated at more than USD 9 billion in terms of economic, social and environmental losses, including the release of an estimated 1-2 billion tonnes of carbon. More recently, transboundary haze pollution has also become a serious problem in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Thailand. In northern Thailand, land and forest fires caused the air quality to deteriorate to unhealthy levels during the dry season of 2006 and 2007.

More recently in 2015, in the southern ASEAN region, prolonged dry weather conditions from mid-August 2015 led to escalations in hotspot activities in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Transboundary smoke haze from the hotspots affected many parts of the southern ASEAN region as well as some areas in the northern ASEAN region. The region experienced unprecedented severity and massive geographical spread of the smoke haze affecting various ASEAN countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the southern part of Philippines and the northern part of Lao PDR. Millions of people were affected by the haze, which included 19 deaths in Indonesia. Further, peatland mismanagement had exacerbated the situation, and caused traditional slash-and-burn to spread uncontrollably across Sumatra and Kalimantan. In addition to substantive efforts by the Government of Indonesia to address the land and forest fires and the associated smoke haze, collaborative efforts were also undertaken by Indonesia, the neighbouring ASEAN countries and the international community.

Fires in peat soils have been identified as a major contributor to transboundary haze pollution in the region. 60% of the world’s tropical peatlands are found in Southeast Asia,covering an estimated area of 24 million hectares. Of this, Indonesia has about 70% of the region’s peatlands. Drainage and unsustainable management practices have made peatlands vulnerable to fire. Peat soil, which is comprised of partly decomposed plant material, can easily burn as soon as the water is drained out and the peat dries up. Peat fires are difficult to suppress as they occur under the ground. Peat fires also produce very thick smoke haze and release a high amount of carbon. The land and forest fires in 1997-1998, 2002, and 2005 in Southeast Asia have destroyed more than 3 million hectares of peatlands.

Why is the ASEAN region susceptible to haze pollution?

Fires in peat soils have been identified as a major contributor to transboundary haze pollution in the region. 60% of the world’s tropical peatlands are found in Southeast Asia,covering an estimated area of 24 million hectares. Of this, Indonesia has about 70% of the region’s peatlands. Drainage and unsustainable management practices have made peatlands vulnerable to fire. Peat soil, which is comprised of partly decomposed plant material, can easily burn as soon as the water is drained out and the peat dries up. Peat fires are difficult to suppress as they occur under the ground. Peat fires also produce very thick smoke haze and release a high amount of carbon. The land and forest fires in 1997-1998, 2002, and 2005 in Southeast Asia have destroyed more than 3 million hectares of peatlands.

How is ASEAN tackling the haze issue?

ASEAN Member States have been undertaking joint efforts in monitoring, preventing and mitigating transboundary haze pollution resulting from land and forest fires, guided by the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (or ASEAN Haze Agreement) that was adopted in June 2002 and entered into force in November 2003. Progress has been made in implementing this Agreement, including the implementation of the Standard Operating Procedures for Monitoring, Assessment and Joint Response; implementation of the ASEAN Peatland Management Strategy (APMS); the conduct of simulation exercises; and the deployment of the Panel of ASEAN Experts on Fire and Haze Assessment and Coordination.

What are the key features of the ASEAN Haze Agreement?

The ASEAN Haze Agreement recognises that transboundary haze pollution which result from land and/or forest fires should be mitigated through concerted national efforts and international cooperation.

The Agreement contains measures on:

•       Monitoring and assessment

•       Prevention

•       Preparedness

•       National and joint emergency response

•       Procedures for deployment of people, materials and equipment across borders

•       Technical cooperation & scientific research