Southeast Asian countries have signed one of the first regional agreements to fight air pollution. The deal was signed in Kuala Lumpur Monday by ASEAN's 10 member states and sets up legal measures to better combat choking smog that engulfs the region during the dry fire season.
Each year forest fires burning out of control in places like Indonesia's Sumatra and Borneo and Malaysia leave the rest of Southeast Asia cloaked in a smoky haze. Some years it gets so bad that it affects the health and breathing of millions of people.
On Monday, countries belonging to ASEAN - the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - signed a pact to track and fight the spread of forest fires.
Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Program, which helped draft the treaty, welcomed the new pact. "Finally, now it was possible to come to such a legally binding agreement of these 10 countries," he said, calling it "a framework with regard to the common activities and obligation of the member states to fight forest fires, to prevent it, to monitor, to make early warning possible and to coordinate the mitigation effect."
Mr. Toepfer says that Japan, which is not member of ASEAN, as well as many international non-governmental organizations have shown support for the pact.
Under the agreement countries are obliged to strengthen their fire fighting forces as well as develop satellite-monitoring systems for the early detection of fires.
The agreement, which still needs to be ratified by at least six nations before it goes into effect, took four years to negotiate.
Talks of a trans-boundary pact started in the late 1990s, when a dry weather spell brought on by the El Nino effect caused forest fires to burn out of control for weeks and in some cases months. Millions of hectares of forest were lost with grave consequences to human health and forest biodiversity.
Forest fires in Southeast Asia are often blamed on plantation owners and traditional farmers who routinely set fires as an inexpensive means of clearing land.
ASEAN comprises Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.