ASEAN ministers and senior officials charged with tackling the haze problem have met every month or so since November last year to make urgent decisions and to review the impact of actions to combat the forest fires and to prevent their spread in the region. Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have taken turns to host these regular meetings.
The Regional Haze Action Plan has been adopted to ensure that ASEAN is not re-visited by the haze which blanketed the region in the latter half of last year. The Haze Action Plan spells out the steps and measures needed to effectively address the haze problem. The plan calls for a regional effort to deal with a problem that transcends national boundaries. As a result of its implementation, tackling and controlling the fires and the resulting haze is no longer an individual undertaking of the affected countries, but a coordinated and concerted response by the ASEAN member countries.
Thanks to an internal network or intranet linking the region's participating meteorological institutions, communication is now faster, cheaper and more effective. Data from the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) in Singapore is now accessible to all ASEAN countries. The link strengthens the region's early-warning system for land and forest fires.
Information available includes satellite imagery, wind charts, visibility and air quality information and other meteorological and environmental information for haze monitoring.
A complete inventory of the land and forest fire-fighting capability of each country and the identification of those resources which can be used regionally has been completed. An operating procedure to activate the deployment of these resources for regional fire-fighting is being finetuned.
To beef up the grouping's fire-fighting capacity, an ASEAN Research and Training Centre for Land and Forest Fire Management will be established at the University of Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan. The Centre will fill the gap which currently exists for fire-fighters armed with the necessary knowledge and skills to snuff out forest, brush and land fires.
When tabling the idea of the centre in February this year, the then Indonesian Minister for the Environment, Bapak Sarwono pointed out that Indo-nesia's forests presented a new situation -- tropical forests that had become dry because of the El Nino phenomenon and the susceptibility of peat to catching fire. He said that people now understood that such a unique condiition now exists and personnel had to be trained to deal with it.
The resources that individual ASEAN members will marshal for purposes of carrying out the Action Plan is being implemented by a Regional Technical Assistance (RETA) package that the Asian Development Bank will provide. Implementation of the RETA package has seen the setting up of a project management unit at the ASEAN Secretariat which serves as a base for experts to be hired to help in the implementation of the Action Plan.
To battle the blaze, both Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia have bought equipment and reinforced legislation against open burning. Malaysia, having expended US$2.5 million on equipment, has also begun a dialogue with its plantation owners in an attempt to effectively address the problem. Malaysia and Indonesia have also pushed ahead with the signing in December 1997 of their bilateral Memorandum of Understanding on Disaster Cooperation and Assistance, including forest fire and haze.
Two Sub-Regional Firefighting Arrangements (SRFA) will facilitate regional efforts to stamp out fires in Kalimantan and the Sumatra/Riau provinces. The Ministers have resolved that the SRFAs' priority will be to ensure that fires will not become an economic and environmental threat.
The arrangements will ensure that the fires are contained by triggering off a rapid response so that fires are put out quickly before they are allowed to get out of control. A central revolving fund set up with contributions from regional and international sources will support the SRFAs.
These initiatives coincide with the efforts of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to coordinate international assistance on behalf of ASEAN. UNEP held an international conference for donors on forest fire and cross-border pollution in Geneva in late April where a US$ 10 million short-term action plan to put out the fires was discussed. In a related development, the US offer of assistance to Southeast Asia for fortifying the region's haze monitoring, atmospheric modelling as well as the firefighting capabilities have been accepted by ASEAN as well.