Although the Covid-19 pandemic has dominated headlines in 2020, it is unfortunately not the only danger to public health that Singapore and South-east Asia face this year. With the return of the dry season, there is a chance that transboundary haze released by forest and peat fires in Indonesia might return. Early action is needed to ensure that the region does not end up battling health threats on multiple fronts.
The Indonesian provinces of Central Kalimantan, Riau and South Sumatra have already declared states of emergency in response to rising numbers of hot spots, or possible fires detected by satellites.
This is a typical precautionary practice at the start of the mid-year dry season, and is not in itself alarming. Rather, it signals that the provincial authorities are increasing patrols and fire suppression efforts, with the state of emergency allowing them to request help from the central government.
Indonesia has good reason to take the threat of haze seriously. Official figures show that nearly 900,000 Indonesians suffered from respiratory ailments at the height of last year's haze, and the World Bank believes that the crisis cost the country some US$5.2 billion (S$7.2 billion), or 0.5 per cent of Indonesia's gross domestic product.
Typically, the likelihood of haze depends on two factors. One is how hot and dry the weather is likely to be. The other is human activity.
The haze-inducing fires in Indonesia are thought to be largely man-made, the result of fire being used to clear land for agriculture. Government policy, as well as action by both the authorities and private sector, is therefore critical to the success of fire prevention and management.
Based on the weather alone, we are not likely to see a major haze incident like the one last year, when the region suffered an unusually strong drought. Projections by the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre and other agencies suggest that the 2020 dry season might be milder than average.
This leaves the human factor.
Indonesia has taken steps to strengthen fire and haze prevention across the country.
Since 2011, Indonesia has stopped granting new licences for companies to convert primary forest and peatland to agricultural use. This started off as a moratorium in 2011, a temporary measure that ended up being periodically extended in two-year intervals.
Last August, Indonesian President Joko Widodo made the ban permanent, a move that signalled the nation's continued commitment towards safeguarding the environment.
The National Police announced earlier this month that 73 people and two companies are currently under investigation for setting fires since the start of the year.
THE COVID-19 RISK FACTOR
Unfortunately, 2020 is far from an ordinary year. Despite efforts on the ground, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic raises the risk that fires might still burn out of control.
Fire and haze responses have already been hindered due to the health crisis.
With government coffers under strain, Indonesia's Ministry of Environment and Forestry has had its budget reduced, affecting its ability to conduct fire patrols. Provincial and district governments have similarly had to divert funding to hospitals, or to deal with job losses caused by the global economic slowdown.
Social distancing restrictions have interrupted critical fire prevention work, such as the construction of infrastructure to maintain groundwater levels in fire-prone areas. Face-to-face engagement efforts to educate villages and smaller companies about the dangers of uncontrolled burning have also been disrupted.
In addition, recent reports that the Indonesian government may dissolve the Peatland Restoration Agency, or BRG, bear watching. It is still too early to tell whether the BRG's task of restoring some 2.67 million ha of peatland will be smoothly carried over to other agencies, if it is dissolved.
More worryingly, the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic has also impacted livelihoods across Indonesia.
To some extent, the weak commodities market is a disincentive for growers to clear land and expand plantations. But Indonesia's agricultural sector has numerous mid-sized and smaller growers that have low margins and lean balance sheets. Such plantation operators may feel pressure to keep planting despite the sluggish market, and some may resort to the use of fire as a cost-saving measure.
WHAT SINGAPORE, ASEAN CAN DO
The Singapore Institute of International Affairs released its annual Haze Outlook report last month, warning that a severe transboundary haze remains a risk - rated amber on a scale of green, amber and red - because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Within Indonesia, government agencies and non-governmental organisations have also sounded the alarm. The authorities have already carried out cloud-seeding operations to induce rain in fire-prone regions.
Media reports also say Mr Joko told a special Cabinet meeting that Indonesia must not forget the urgent need to deal with forest and land fires, even though the nation is busy fighting the pandemic.
But the haze is not merely a national-level problem. Other countries in the region also have roles to play in addressing the issue.
Singapore is a key part of agribusiness supply chains, and several leading firms in the sector are based in Singapore. As a regional hub, Singapore can use trade, financial and consumer levers to encourage sustainable industry practices.
Additionally, Asean has set a goal of achieving a haze-free region by this year. Asean should continue strengthening its platforms for member states to coordinate action to tackle transboundary haze and improve sustainability standards.
The link between Covid-19 and the risk of haze illustrates how the pandemic can have significant knock-on effects beyond the mortality rate of the virus itself.
If a haze crisis occurs while the region and world are still fighting the pandemic, it would compound the strain on public health resources.
By addressing the risk of haze and fires with early intervention and continued vigilance, we can ensure that the latter half of this year does not see multiple health threats endangering the public all at once, potentially pushing resources to breaking point.
• Gan Meixi is the Singapore Institute of International Affairs assistant director for sustainability, while Aaron Choo is its assistant director of international affairs and media.