United by Disaster

In a picture taken on September 9, 2009 haze covers Pontianak city in Kalimantan on Indonesia's Borneo island. The number of haze-causing spot fires on Indonesia's half of Borneo island have more than doubled, sending pollution into Malaysia, officials said on September 29, 2009. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

By Simon Tay

The week the earthquake hit Padang, I was in Kuala Lumpur for a dialogue about the regional haze.

Should we be criticising Indonesia for the fires, someone asked, when the country had just suffered such tragedy? Does the haze pollution seem inconsequential? Does Indonesia have the right to do whatever it wants without outside interference?

It is hard to compare an earthquake of 7.6 magnitude with the haze pollution. It is like apples and oranges, durians and mangoes.

In the earthquake, the damage is visible immediately and dramatically, especially since the centre of Padang was hit. For the haze pollution, the image of KL's twin towers shrouded and hardly visible, is also compelling. But the harm is harder to see. The pall of the smoke is spread across the region and the spike in respiratory problems plays out in a hundred small clinics.

The earthquake is a natural disaster and we focus on the victims. The fires, while made worse by the prolonged dry spell, are deliberately started by humans and many look to identify the culprits.

Our meeting began with a minute of silence. Not only for the earthquake victims but also for those in the Philippines and Vietnam who have suffered because of Typhoon Ketsana. When we discussed the haze, the sharpest criticism came from the Indonesians themselves, especially those working in the most fire prone districts of Riau and Kalimantan.

While Jakarta has been immune, these Indonesians have been the first victims. They suffer the thickest haze when vast tracts of land, often belonging to large companies, are cleared by fires, notwithstanding the laws. By comparison, the people in Malaysia, Singapore or other countries are like second-hand smokers.

But whether more or less intense, the human suffering from the haze pollution is not divided by national flags, but interdependent across borders. The earthquake, too, demonstrates the growing sense of shared humanity. Foreign governments, charities and humanitarian organisations have joined the Indonesian officials in providing assistance.

For the earthquake, the urgent need for cooperation has eclipsed fear about outside interference. A similar sense may be emerging about the haze, albeit more slowly and less certainly.

Special interests deny responsibility but President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's government has promised action. In 2007, the target was to reduce fire hotspots by half.

Last month, at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, Indonesia promised to reduce its carbon emissions by 26 per cent by 2020. To achieve that, massive deforestation and fires must stop, as these give off the bulk of emissions and not industry.

But will promises lead to action? New ways to cooperate must evolve. Both Singapore and Malaysia have taken the initiative to work with local Indonesian officials and communities in Jambi and Riau. For Asean, the haze agreement awaits ratification by Indonesia's recently elected legislature.

At the global level, negotiations for a new climate change regime must provide incentives for Indonesia to retain and regenerate their forests to absorb and lock up carbon. In return, however, there must be an assurance that these forests can be secured and kept safe from fires.

The earthquake and haze both demonstrate our interdependence. For the recurring problem of the haze, there is no simple, single or immediate solution. But working at different levels and different sectors can bring progress.

Simon Tay is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in New York and chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.