SINGAPORE: After our severe episodes of haze in 2013 and 2015, we had a reprieve last year because of La Nina.
But we also owe the reprieve to the work of the Indonesian government including Minister of Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya Bakar, Nazir Foead of Indonesia's Peatland Restoration Agency, at least one provincial governor, and many Indonesian and international civil society servants working tirelessly to build maps, investigate soil conditions and train farmers.
Even though weather forecasts suggest that we won’t see the same recurrence of haze this year, and the Indonesian government has been working to put out hotspots developing in Kalimantan, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. It is useful that the Indonesian government continues to exercise vigilance but what do we need to address the problem of the haze for the long term?
THREE DRIVERS BEHIND THE HAZE
There are three key drivers behind the haze which suggest that we may be at higher risk of haze going forward.
First, a surge in the global demand for pulp and palm oil, driven by a rising middle class. They are consuming huge amounts of consumer goods including products that use palm oil and paper, present in most products as a cheap stabiliser that extends shelf life.
Second, global warming, including higher temperatures especially near the equator, increasing the chances of plants and peatland catching fire. Dry conditions and lack of rain in dry seasons also make it faster for such fires to spread.
Rain storms in 2015 finally ended the fires after months of haze, but counting on rain storms is not a practical strategy.
Third, a rising proportion of peatland drained for cultivation increases fire risks. Peatland is carbon-rich; hence peatland fires result in larger amounts of carbon monoxide and particulate matter compared to regular soil. This explains why haze has not merely returned, but may be worsening at an accelerating pace.
HAZE MAY BE THE NEW NORMAL
Another core reason we must act now, is that the most damaging impact of the haze has yet to materialise.
Haze affects all of us, not just the children or the elderly. A hospital I checked in with noted a rise in patients with respiratory problems during the haze in 2015. Longitudinal studies that show the health impact after several years of exposure to air pollution can come many years after, leading to increased risks of stroke.
Singapore’s economy would also suffer again, especially retail, hospitality, food and beverage. Consumers and tourists may stay away.
More repercussions may follow, especially with severe haze recurring.
Fellow CEOs told me in 2015 that some corporates moved staff to Hong Kong for that period and most may move them permanently if the haze recurs. At least one senior banker sent his family to the Swiss Alps and another relocated to Stanford for the semester.
TARGET THE PROBLEMS IN INDONESIA
While a knee-jerk reaction to point the finger when a major haze occurs is commonplace, it is more constructive if we focus on solving the haze challenge at source and find sustainable win-win solutions, even in this period of “peace”.
Equipping Indonesia to deal with fires that emerge is key, so we need to ensure that there are sufficient water bombers on standby. Potential lease agreements with countries that can contribute and companies that can provide these capabilities at short notice may be one way.
The Indonesian Peatland Restoration Agency under Nazir Foead, has decisively tackled the huge challenge head on. President Joko Widodo made an excellent choice in choosing him.
Substituting palm oil is not a solution because of its high yield; the crux is palm oil produced without burning peatland.
My view is that more immediately, we have to address why farmers still continue with slash-and-burn tactics. We have to address the fact that it costs US$500 to US$800 to hire labour and rent equipment to clear one hectare of land, which can amount to several months of income per farmer.
So pooling together equipment and labour that farmers can leverage to clear land can help lower costs and give farmers an alternative to slash-and-burn. Working with the local government is key to ensure incentives are aligned and followed, to ensure no burning of peatland.
In solving the haze, we also need a highly competent platform to support the Indonesian government.
The ASEAN Haze Coordination Centre, theoretically birthed in the ASEAN Haze Treaty more than 10 years ago, has the potential to be this vehicle for ASEAN to come together for any country that needs such help.
But we must ensure that it gets funding and highly competent talent that is results-oriented.
This will allow it to leverage LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology to prioritise efforts given Indonesia’s huge archipelago, and essential peatland fire retardants.
Solving the haze matters to Singaporeans like me because it affects our lives and our country. Singapore celebrated SG50 just two years ago but most people don't know we have been afflicted with haze for almost as long. If we have Haze100, will SG100 exist? And even if we do, what kind of life would that be?
Because of all these, we must act now. We can solve the haze crisis for good - together. But there’s no time to lose.
Vivian Claire Liew is founding CEO of social enterprise PhilanthropyWorks and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.
Editors note: An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly named Indonesia's Minister of Environment and Forestry. It has been corrected. We apologise for the error.