BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei Southeast Asian nations agreed on Wednesday to adopt a new system to improve monitoring of smog caused by fires, an attempt to make plantation companies more accountable following the region's worst air pollution crisis in 16 years.
Thick haze, mostly from land-clearing fires in Indonesia, blanketed Singapore and swathes of neighboring Malaysia earlier this year, stoking diplomatic tensions as air pollution climbed to the most hazardous levels since a similar crisis in 1997.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which began a two-day regional summit in Brunei on Wednesday, has been criticized in the past for not taking stronger action to prevent the chronic pollution problem.
Even with improved monitoring, critics say the region lacks the legal mechanisms or strong institutions to enforce compliance.
"ASEAN leaders have approved the Haze Monitoring System. We hope the respective ministries will upload the digitized concession maps as soon as possible," Singapore's environment minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, wrote on his official Facebook page.
"It will send a strong signal to all companies that they will be held accountable."
Under the Singapore-developed system, governments in the region will share satellite data to pinpoint fires and identify companies, most of them palm-oil producers, that own the affected land.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued an apology in June for the haze, and his government pledged to ratify a 2002 ASEAN agreement aimed at combating air pollution from fires.
Indonesian investigators said in June they were building criminal cases against eight Southeast Asian companies suspected of being responsible for this year's fires, which raised concern over public health and hurt tourism in Singapore and Malaysia.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was quoted by the Singapore Straits Times as saying Wednesday's agreement was a "concrete example" of ASEAN cooperation.
"You need data on who owns which piece of land so that we can put the maps together with the satellite photos and we can make information available," said Lee.
(Reporting By Stuart Grudgings)