A PROLONGED drought in Indonesia, coupled with ongoing peatland and forest destruction, threatens to unleash what could be Singapore's worst haze on record. Now, more than ever, we need long-term solutions to solve what is sadly becoming an annual public health emergency in the region.
Today is the third anniversary of the forest moratorium, an initiative that protects some, but not all, of Indonesia's forests. It's a step in the right direction, but the haze is a very visible reminder that more action is needed. With only months to go before President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's last term is up, he could risk his legacy going up in smoke unless he moves now to strengthen legislation to protect all of Indonesia's peatland and forests.
Protecting these landscapes is the best long-term means of stopping the fires and avoiding a public health disaster. Locked up beneath forests or in massive swamps, peatlands are one of the world's biggest carbon stores. In their natural swamp-like state, they are almost impossible to set alight. But decades of industrial- scale destruction have made parts of Sumatra a giant tinderbox, threatening the health of millions.
When peatlands are cleared and drained to make way for plantations, they become dry and prone to fire. Indonesia's peatlands cover less than 0.1 per cent of the earth's surface. But as a result of draining and fires, they are already responsible for 4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions every year. The impact on our health is insidious. During El Nino years, about 300,000 deaths in South-east Asia can be linked to smoke from peat and forest fires, together with other forms of urban air pollution.
There is momentum from the corporate sector to address this in the wake of popular support for Greenpeace campaigns. They include Procter & Gamble's recent "No Deforestation" pledge, and similar commitments last year from Asia Pulp & Paper as well as Wilmar International, the world's largest palm oil trader.
This momentum represents a shift towards responsibly produced commodities. It must be matched by government policies in Indonesia that protect all peatland and all forests, while providing businesses with incentives to do the same.
There are reasons to hope Dr Yudhoyono can achieve this. His moratorium on forest clearance, though not perfect, has been in place for three years. And under his presidency, the country developed a greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan and a national Redd+ plan. The latter aims to reduce deforestation and improve governance and transparency in the management of Indonesia's abundant natural resources.
These are good steps, but the confusing web of bureaucracy has created a series of policies, such as the Masterplan for the Acceleration of Economic Development, which counteract what progress could be made to set a "green" development path. For instance, massive goals to increase palm oil production are formulated arbitrarily, without reference to where it will operate or how it may affect the goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Forest and peat fires are the most visible signs that business as usual for the plantation sector cannot continue. It's not too late for Dr Yudhoyono to firm up his green legacy. Last month, he scrapped a watered-down peat regulation, and asked that it be revised. Now is his chance to push through an enduring legacy that will protect all peatland, regardless of its location or depth.
Swamp-like peatland might be wildly unsexy during this election period, but it's time the role it plays in contributing to the haze were recognised.
It's time, too, for President Yudhoyono to firmly establish his green legacy.
The writer is head of the Indonesia Forest Campaign at Greenpeace International.