Geopolitics of Pollution in Southeast Asia

Hazy Skies

The recent episode of an oppressive smog that blanketed Southeast Asia highlights an entirely new kind of problem in contemporary international relations, namely, the complexity of transnational governance when traditional remedies--from bombs and missiles at one extreme, to diplomatic démarches and summits on the more polite end--are of no use at all. Not only is responsibility and accountability diffuse and spread across a number of actors-- private and public, domestic and foreign--the presence of non-state agents confuses standard diplomatic operating procedures that are designed to respond to the predations of other states.

After weeks of grey and brooding skies above Singapore, a huge monsoon downpour seems to have done what at least three affected countries, multiple official complaints, numerous threats and counter-accusations could not. For the first time in months, it is now possible to glimpse the horizon, thanks to the temporary lifting of the oppressive and polluting smog that has blanketed the region from Sumatra in the west to Sabah in eastern Borneo, up to Kuala Lumpur. It is too soon to celebrate, however. The haze, as it is known colloquially, is far from over. Hundreds of so-called hotspots, microsites where fires are still burning, can be seen in satellite images. Meteorologists have also warned that, due to the El Niño effect, the haze could last through the end of the year and into January 2016.

The haze is the result of hundreds of small fires burning across Sumatra and Kalimantan provinces in Indonesia. These fires are set off by swidden cultivators in the dry season to clear land to grow palm oil and timber for paper products. Palm oil is a widely used agro-industrial input, used in industries ranging from food products to shampoo, with an estimated annual turnover of $18 billion. The effects of the haze are multiple and complex. The last time this happened—albeit on a smaller scale—in 2013, estimates of economic losses in Malaysia alone ran into billions of dollars. These included losses due to the decline in tourism and travel, cancellation of business meetings and conventions, extra burden on emergency services and hospitals, and losses in productivity when firms and schools had to close. The costs in terms of health, especially for children and the elderly, are considerable and more difficult to estimate as the somatic effects of the haze may not appear for months, even years.

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