The Straits Times says

Too much hot air over recurring haze

After last year's prolonged weeks of haze from Indonesia, which was the worst in 18 years, the parts of South-east Asia that suffer the most periodically are hoping they will get a breather this year. Steady rain has poured down on burning peat lands, damping the fires set alight by reckless slash-and-burn farmers. By some accounts, the changing weather pattern called El Nina also has contributed by sending winds and vapour in directions that have given Singapore and Malaysia a bit of respite.

Last year, Indonesian farmers and plantation owners are reckoned to have burned about 261,000ha of foliage, causing irreparable harm. So far this year, according to Indonesia's Forestry Ministry, that number is down to 2,800ha. Indonesia's police chief said last week that 85 people have been arrested this year for starting fires.

Indonesia's forest fires, which cause billions of dollars of losses at home and in the region, result from a multiplicity of factors. Dominant among them is the lower cost of slash-and-burn methods to clear land compared to that of mechanical methods. Ignorance and poor policing contribute as well. Wind patterns are such that the cinder clouds seldom drift towards Jakarta. Had the politicians there choked on the haze as regularly as their hapless citizens and neighbours, they would not be so dismissive of complaints.

Indonesians living closer to the areas being burnt and the people of Malaysia and Singapore bear the brunt of the scourge. The phenomenon, which previous Indonesian governments ignored or failed to check for 40 years, has tarnished the country's international reputation. As the natural leader of Asean, the world expects Indonesia to safeguard the well-being of the region and also the planet, not to mention its own people.

This is why it is important that Jakarta stays the course in tackling this menace. Under President Joko Widodo, the government has made a good start. His appointment of Mr Luhut Pandjaitan to coordinate the effort last year was a strong signal of commitment. Mr Joko has threatened to fire local military and police personnel whose areas are seeing fires. Even so, Indonesia's Disaster Management Agency has just said that six provinces that have a combined population of 23 million have declared haze-related emergencies, requiring action on a massive and urgent basis, including water drops on the burning peat land.

Despite the situation, some Indonesian officials reacted with prickliness when its neighbours requested it to do more, and faster, to check the canker. They were in the past also reluctant to accept the assistance offered. Man-made disasters - like health-threatening transboundary pollution - should be treated no differently from natural disasters. Both call for a strong unified response that puts the welfare of people above politics.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2016, with the headline 'Too much hot air over recurring haze'. Print Edition | Subscribe