August 19, 2009 / 10:26 AM / 10 years ago

Indonesia tight-lipped as SE Asia braces for worsening haze

SINGAPORE, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Indonesia appeared to bat away offers from other Southeast Asian countries to help stop haze pollution on Wednesday, leaving the region facing worsening skies as a result of a brewing El Nino weather pattern.

Worried about the potential impact, environment ministers of the region met on Wednesday in Singapore to discuss ways to mitigate the haze, which cost over $9 billion in damage to the region’s tourism, transport and farming during an El Nino weather pattern in 1997/98.

"Recognising the situation will be drier than normal, the ministers now agree that: ‘Let us prepare for the worst, do what we can,’" Singapore Environment Minister Yaacob Ibrahim told a news conference after the one-day meeting in the city-state.

Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand offered help to Jakarta to combat outbreaks of fire, but gave no details of concrete funding or measures such as providing fire-fighters.

Asked at a news conference if other Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) members had offered Indonesia help in fighting the fires, Indonesian State Minister for Environment Rachmat Witoelar did not respond.

But Singapore’s Yaacob said there had been such a discussion. "Indonesia has expressed gratitude for that and we will wait for Indonesia as and when to mobilise," he said.

Ministers and senior officials from the five countries agreed to ban all open burning and to suspend permits for burning in fire-prone areas, but the region’s track record in combating fires that lead to international pollution has been weak.

Regional grouping ASEAN has a policy of non-interference in its members’ domestic affairs and is seen by some as a talking shop.

Forest fires are a regular occurrence during the dry season in Indonesian regions such as Sumatra and Borneo, but the situation has been aggravated in recent decades as farmers, paper and palm oil plantation firms start fires to clear land.

The result is smog-like haze in cities such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Thailand’s Hat Yai, reducing visibility and increasing health problems. The ministers said Indonesia had made progress in the past three years to reduce fires.

Indonesian environmental groups said the government of President-elect Yudhoyono should put forest protection at the top of its agenda, ahead of a international meeting in Copenhagen in December to agree action against climate change.

"Every day more precious forest and peatland is being destroyed, burnt and cleared by climate and forest criminals ... leading to an exponential increase in greenhouse gas emissions that is causing climate change," Greenpeace said in a statement.

(Reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan; Editing by Neil Chatterjee and Jeremy Laurence)

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