Suharto told a meeting of ASEAN Environmental Ministers that Indonesia was doing its "level best to prevent and overcome the ongoing bush and forest fires raging in our country".
Suharto’s open apology is the first time the Indonesian government has shown responsibility for causing the haze crisis faced by her neighbouring countries, as previously, Indonesian government officials had been quite indifferent and even carefree in their attitudes and pronouncements with regard to the haze blanketting neighbouring countries as a result of the thousands of bush and forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, which are further compounded by industrial pollution and by extended drought in Indonesia caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean.
In fact, until a few days ago, the latest satellite images showed that the forest-fire situation in Indonesia was unchanged.
The statement by the University Kebangsaan Malaysia’s department of marine science lecturer, Dr. Fredolin Tajudin Tangang, that the haze engulfing the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak should subside by April next year, when the El Nino weather phenomenon responsible for the drought in the region is expected to end underlines the urgency of effective measures being taken to stop the bush and forest fires in Indonesia.
Although the Indonesian Government has banned the practice of burning to clear land, it is to be seen whether this is just all words and no real and effective action.
In view of the severe adverse effects caused to neighbouring countries, where a state of emergency may have to be declared in view of the haze, Suharto’s apology is inadequate unless Indonesia is prepared to agree to the establishment of an ASEAN Haze Committee with full powers to stop the raging forest fires in Indonesia which are choking Malaysia and neighbouring countries
This ASEAN Haze Committee should have overall monitoring and supervisory powers over measures to stop the raging bush and forests fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, with the authority to mobilise regional resources as well as enlisting international support to bring the haze problem in South East Asia under control.
The ASEAN Environment Ministers meeting currently taking place in Jakarta should set up such an ASEAN Haze Committee, or its meeting would be irrelevant and pointless without coming out with a new regional strategy to deal with the biggest environmental disaster in the region.
Locally, the government must also show greater seriousness about the haze problem. It was reported yesterday that the Australian Commonwealth Games chief Ray Godkin in Melbourne had expressed fears over the welfare of athletes if KL remains choked with air pollution caused by the haze for next year’s Games.
He said marathon, long distance runners and cyclists would not survive in the conditions being experienced in KL right now.
Ray Godkin said: "You could’t run a marathon in this… they would just fall over and die. It’s impossible".
These sentiments are in sharp contrast to local statements that Sukom 1998 would not be jeopardised and even assurances that the haze would not cause any drop in tourism industry in Malaysia!
There is now controversy as to when an emergency should be declared as a result of the haze, whether it should be at the level when the Air Pollutant Index passed the "hazardous" level of 300, or whether it should be at the 500 level.
It would appear that when the Cabinet approved on August 20 the five-level alert action plan submitted by the National Haze Committee to deal with the haze problem, the government had not expected the API to breach the 300 level, and when this "hazardous" level was breached in several places in the past few days, the government was more concerned about revising the plan to avoid having to declare a state of emergency.
The point at which an emergency should be declared as a result of worsening air pollution should be decided by scientists and environmentalists and not politicians.
Even up to now, the Malaysian public has not been told what are the full measures and consequences of an emergency.
At 8 a.m. yesterday, the API readings in three places exceeded the hazardous level of 300 – Nilai at 359, Gombak 344 and Kula Lumpur at 302. At 5 p.m. yesterday, these API readings improved although they were still at the unhealthy level of 280 for Nilai, 184 for Gombak and 195 for Kuala Lumpur.
As a measure of the seriousness of the haze problem, as well as to impress on Indonesia the urgent need for it to bear full responsibility for the haze it had caused neighbouring countries, Malaysia should declare a state of emergency for designated areas where the API has reached hazardous levels – such as Nilai and Gombak if they revert to their hazardous levels – rather than declaring a national emergency.
Even the Department of Environment needs to show a greater sense of urgency in enlisting public support in the haze crisis not only by releasing full details of the government’s action plan and emergency measures, but also to use its DOE homepage on the Internet to give hourly posting of the API readings in various parts of the country.