KATOWICE, POLAND - South-east Asia would likely be spared the scourge of haze in 2019, despite predictions of a developing El Nino that could bring drier-than-usual conditions to the region next year, said an Indonesian official this week.
"We are very convinced...that we can handle this," Mr Nazir Foead, chief of Indonesia's Peatland Restoration Agency, told The Straits Times on Thursday (Dec 13), on the sidelines of the ongoing United Nations climate talks in the Polish city of Katowice.
Pointing to stepped-up efforts to protect Indonesia's fire-prone landscape in the aftermath of the 2015 crisis, as well as improved coordination between parties including the government, communities and fire fighters, he added that he was confident that the region would not suffer haze as severe as it was that year.
"We cannot say that there will not be fires, but there will be fewer incidents, and they will be put out much quicker," Mr Foead said.
An El Nino event is associated with unusually hot and dry weather in countries in the western Pacific, such as Singapore and Indonesia. During the 2015 El Nino year, which was exceptionally severe, forest fires in Indonesia raged harder and for longer, resulting in an intense haze that shrouded the region from September to October.
According to the forecasts made earlier this month by the United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there is an 80 per cent chance that an El Nino weather phenomenon could develop in the next three months.
To prevent a repeat of the 2015 haze, Indonesia has rolled out a slew of preventive measures, said Mr Foead.
They include efforts to reduce the occurrence of fires, such as damming up canals to re-flood dried up landscapes, or measures to suppress the blazes when they erupt.
Other than weather factors, fire risk in Indonesia is heightened when the carbon-rich peatlands carpeting the country are drained of water for oil palm and other plantations. When the peat is exposed to air, it becomes more flammable, and also releases carbon into the atmosphere.
Indonesia has a new tool in its arsenal to fight haze. In October, it established the International Tropical Peatland Centre in Jakarta.
An initiative of Indonesia, Peru, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo, the research centre aims to develop scientific projects that will inform the conservation and sustainable management of tropical peatlands - large carbon sinks which can be found in all four countries.
"There are similar problems with peatland management in all countries, such as the conversion of peatlands for agriculture and the draining of peatlands, and with the establishment of this centre, we can learn from each other," said Mr Foead.
For example, the mapping of peatlands can help planners determine which areas of a peat dome should be conserved, and which are more suitable for agroforestry, he added.
"We have done great mapping exercises with Lidar, we would like to share that, and I think the other countries are very keen to learn," he said.
Indonesia has also worked with Japanese institutions on how to monitor water table levels in these areas in real time, and this is also an area of interest for the other countries, Mr Foead added.
Ms Pey Peixun, outreach manager for the Singapore-based environmental group PM Haze (People's Movement to Stop Haze), said the establishment of the centre was timely.
The group discovered over the course of its work on peatland restoration projects in Indonesia that a key barrier to peatland restoration is the lack of access to information, such as peat maps, vegetation, and water table data, she said.
Ms Pey said: "Currently, there is no coordinated dissemination and research centre. Instead, the information and research needed is scattered among various local and international institutions. The presence of the centre as a coordinating body will hopefully speed up the global peatland restoration effort."