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Thursday, February 26, 1998 Published at 22:15 GMT

World: Analysis

Haze - what can be done?
image: [ Asean meeting on haze: few new ideas ]
Asean meeting on haze: few new ideas

Hundreds of brush and forest fires are again burning in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, producing a thick blanket of smog, similar to that which covered large parts of South East Asia last year. The Indonesian Environment Minister, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, has warned that the fires are proving very difficult to control. Can anything be done?

There were few new ideas about containing the fires from the meeting of nine Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) countries meeting in the Malaysian city of Kuching at the end of February.

The Indonesian Government came up with one; it would start cloud-seeding from aircraft, it said, to try to encourage rain over the fires. But this is unlikely to produce enough rain to put out the blazes.

It is not surprising that the ministers have failed to come up with a ground-breaking plan. None of the attempts at dealing with 1997 fires had much effect.

The 1997 fire-fight

[ image:  ]
As fires spread across Indonesia with the authorities apparently helpless, locals were reduced to thrashing at the ground with bunches of leaves, or splashing what little water they could find onto the blaze.

In the Indonesian city of Jambi, where the haze was thickest, people in despair took to gathering in the main square to pray for the rain that could clear the air. The local government, accustomed to waiting for orders from Jakarta in Indonesia's highly centralised political system, seemed paralysed.

Eventually, Indonesian Environment Minister, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, took the unusual steps of admitting openly the full scale of the crisis, setting up a team to monitor the fires via satellite, and promising to punish those responsible for causing them.

But, although smog spread far beyond Indonesia's borders, in the tradition of South East Asian diplomacy there were no public recriminations from Indonesia's neighbours.

Instead, Singapore's Environment Minister, Yeow Cheow Tong, asked for help from the international community, calling on countries with experience in fighting large forest fires to offer their expertise.

Assistance arrived in the form of huge water bombing aircraft from the United States, smaller planes from Australia and various firefighting facilities from other countries, including many hundreds from Malaysia.

[ image:  ]
But with smoke-bound airports closed and overland travel virtually impossible, they made little difference.

As US Ambassador J Stapleton Roy conceded, no amount of international assistance could solve the problem.

"This team can make a difference on a small scale, but when you have fires on the scale that you have here in Indonesia, they are not going to be able obviously to take care of the total fire problem."

Most people acknowledged that the only thing that could put the fires out was the arrival of the rains.

To that end Malaysia tried several methods of creating rainfall, including experimental Russian technology, supposedly designed to generate high winds and, in turn, clouds and rain.

But none seem to have had any major success.

Action plan

By December 1997, the monsoons had calmed the fires and Asean met to agree an action plan to prevent a repetition of the blazes. The most directly affected countries would take on particular responsibilities: Singapore coordinating satellite monitoring; Malaysia looking at new preventative measures; and Indonesia concentrating on fire-fighting.

Malaysia and Indonesia also signed an agreement on joint disaster management and relief efforts, defining cooperation in deployment of personnel, equipment, search and rescue missions, and training and information exchange.

In February the wheel had turned full circle and the ministers agreed the only way to avoid a repeat of 1997's environmental disaster was to prevent the fires from being started in the first place.

Tackling business

[ image:  ]
Steps to that end had already been taken; in December 1997, the Indonesian Environment Minister announced he would propose a moratorium on new investment in palm oil plantations - accused of being one of the main culprits behind this year's fires.

He promised to continue prosecutions against individual companies known to have used burning to clear land and to stop land clearing licences being issued.

The World Bank also stepped in, offering financial assistance and inviting timber companies from around the world to a meeting to discuss how to prevent similar environmental disasters from happening again.

And the World Wide Fund for Nature added its voice by calling for improved management of the world's forests. It said national laws controlling forest fires should be strictly enforced and new legislation introduced where necessary. It also called for an international task force to be set up to address environmental disasters.

However, none of these plans seem to have made much difference. By February the fires were again spreading.

Part of the problem is that those starting the fires ignore demands to stop. The Indonesian Environment Minister himself has admitted that existing laws against burning land are impossible to enforce in the remote forests of Indonesia.

In addition, many of the larger companies accused of using fire to clear land have political influence. Few have actually been punished by the Indonesian authorities.

Dry conditions

[ image:  ]
The situation is made worse by drought, linked to the El Nino weather phenomenon, and the fact that Indonesians are unprepared for such conditions.

As the Environment Minister says: "We people of the tropics are not used to prolonged dry spells of this kind. We have to get used to a changing climate, which means much drier conditions. We are not a tropical paradise of the old days any more."

When the Minister warned of the effects of El Nino, not many people were convinced, because the fires had not been a problem for the previous few years.

Urgent action required

The extent of fires burning in Indonesia suggests that action will have to be taken very quickly if a crisis at least as bad as last year is to be averted.

In February, Steve Howard of the World Wide Fund for Nature said: "There's an estimated 1,000 fires currently underway on the island of Kalamantan at the moment, because the drought is continuing and there are the same causes of fires as last year."

The worst affected areas have had only sporadic rainfall over the past three months, leaving vegetation in a dry and inflammable state. In addition, fires from last year are burning underground and can resurface in dry conditions.

In the absence of any other practical measures, the Asean governments appear to be relying on the uncertain hope that enough rain will arrive over the next few weeks to prevent the fires from escalating.

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