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As smog engulfs South East Asia, politicians continue to fan the diplomatic flames

Image by NASA Earth Observatory
Image by NASA Earth Observatory

The Tragedy of the Commons thesis highlights the dangers of the unregulated use of our environment. In 1968 Garrett Hardin noted in his seminal article, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ that ‘ruin is the destination towards which all men rush’ given the propensity to extract maximum benefit from our common environment en masse. Our environment is limited in terms of what we can take from it but also in terms of what we can put into it. If utility and lack of regulation dictate that it is cheaper to discharge pollution untreated than treated then we become locked into a system of collectively ‘fouling our own nest’. How much better if you can foul someone else’s nest? An example of this scenario is currently being played out across the Malacca Straits in South–East Asia.

A thick grey haze is currently engulfing Singapore and parts of Malaysia. This is indicative that the environmental security of one nation can be adversely affected by causes far beyond its borders. The smog is the result of the illegal burning of peat swamps on the Indonesian island of Sumatra to clear land for palm oil plantations. This process generates widespread ‘negative externalities’ as the impact is being felt hundreds of kilometers east of the fires. Millions of residents are affected by the shifting smoke, which, unsurprisingly, fails to respect national boundaries.

The air that we breathe is both worthless and priceless. It is free and cannot therefore be regulated by the price mechanism of value. When its quality is compromised, as in this case, the cost to the human and natural environment is high. However, economic benefits are generated elsewhere and in this case, at least thus far, the polluter avoids paying. Historically similar issues were seen in Europe in the 1980s, specifically with acid rain.

The environmental effects on Singapore and parts of Peninsula Malaysia, especially the southern state of Johor are palpable. Measured against the Pollutants Standard Index (PSI) where levels between 101-200 are considered unhealthy, 201-300 as very unhealthy and above 300 as hazardous, Singapore has reached levels of over 400. Hospitals have reported large increases in the admission of patients with respiratory problems, schools have been closed, businesses are reporting dramatic reductions in customers, tourists are being put off and both Singapore and Malaysia have had to reinstate emergency governmental inter-departmental agencies to co-ordinate responses. Panic-buying of face masks in Singapore has led to some pharmacy stocks running out and the Singapore government has enlisted the help of the armed forces to distribute a million masks to 200,000 of the poorest households. The impoverished are often the least able to resist adverse environmental impacts and are the most likely to live in environmentally hazardous areas. Quite simply because there is no choice.

The environmental situation threatens to last many more weeks and potentially spread to other parts of the region. Diplomatic tensions between Singapore and Malaysia on the one hand, and Indonesia on the other have been raised. The Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs has “urged Indonesia to take timely and concrete actions to solve the problem”. The Malaysian Environmental Minister has held urgent talks with his Indonesian counterpart. Both Singapore and Malaysia have offered assistance to help extinguish the fires. However, Agung Laksono, Indonesian Minister for People’s Welfare with responsibility for coordinating the Indonesian response to the haze crisis, has rather undiplomatically accused Singapore of behaving “like children” and responded to its offer of assistance, reportedly by stating “ if its just half a million (dollars), better we use our own budget”. A major problem for diplomatic initiatives when faced with trans-boundary pollution is that sensitivities over sovereign rights and responsibilities are liable to be raised. Such sensitivities are likely to be acute in the post-colonial environment of South East Asia. Environmental flashpoints have a nasty habit of resurrecting underlying tensions and these are certainly present in the Indo/Malay case.

However, just as pollution transcends state boundaries so do companies. The Indonesian Environment Minister, in a defiant instance of diplomatic finger-pointing, placed the blame for the fires on Singaporean companies active in Sumatra. As is often the case the ‘locality’ that is being blamed for causing the problems is actually tied into a transnational network of production and exchange.

Whilst politicians seem content to fan the diplomatic flames, however, the real ones continue. The resultant environmental impact carries on inflicting disruption and misery on millions of residents in the region and may do so for weeks to come.

Caryl Thompson is a Doctoral Researcher in the Institute of Asia Pacific Studies in the School of Politics & International Relations at the University of Nottingham.  She is currently located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where she is undertaking research at the University’s Malaysia campus.

Dr. Pauline Eadie is a University Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Politics and International relations at the University of Nottingham. She has travelled extensively in S-E Asia and teaches security studies, including environmental security.

Published inSouth East Asia

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