Singapore hit again by haze

Singapore hit again by haze
People take photos near the Singapore Flyer observatory wheel shrouded by haze August 26, 2016.
PHOTO: Reuters

It is happening again: Indonesia's inability to control forest fires has left the residents of its northern neighbour covered in smoke, an annual occurrence that has often tested relations between the two nations.

Haze from forest and land fires from Riau province blew into Singapore on Friday, triggering a wave of complaints on social media from the city-state's residents.

Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA) recorded that at 6 p.m. local time the pollutant standards index (PSI) had reached 127, down from 215 at 2 p.m. local time. A PSI above 100 is considered "unhealthy" while anything above 200 is categorized as "very unhealthy", especially for young children, the elderly and people with heart and lung diseases.

On Friday, the NEA registered its concerns with its Indonesian counterpart over "additional episodes of deterioration in air quality in Singapore should the fires continue".

"The NEA urged Indonesia to continue taking the necessary actions to prevent and mitigate the fires during this dry season and asked for an update on the situation in Sumatra and Kalimantan," the agency said in a statement on Friday.

The air pollution comes from rampant illegal land clearing using fire, which ravages thousands of hectares of forest and quickly spreads a thick smoky haze over the region.

Indonesia's Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) said in a statement that forest and land fires had worsened in Riau and that smoke from 67 hot spots in the province had reached Singapore.

In response to this, the government said it had declared states of emergency in six provinces: Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan.

The emergency status was needed to allow easier access for the BNPB and to allow each regional disaster mitigation agency (BPBD) to mobilize resources.

The BNPB said it had deployed 7,200 air and ground task force personnel to tackle forest fires and land burning. It is also using three water bombing helicopters, two fixed-wing water bombers and one CASA aircraft to induce artificial rain.

The CASA aircraft, loaded with 40 tons of salt, has been used to intensify cloud-seeding in a bid to help stimulate rainfall in Riau. Thousands of canals, water reserves and reservoirs have also been prepared.

"About 21.7 million liters of water has been poured from the sky to extinguish the fires," BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told The Jakarta Post on Friday.

Based on data from the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG), 67 hot spots in the form of forest and land fires were detected in Riau on Friday morning.

Riau Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD) head Edward Sanger said the number of hot spots had reduced to 47 by Friday evening.

Rokan Hilir and Bengkalis are the two regencies with the thickest haze. "The land there is dominated by peat, which burns easily, especially during the dry season," Edward said.

"The forest fires in Riau come and go. It happened recently because rain has not poured down on the city for 15 days," said Raffles Panjaitan, the Environment and Forestry Ministry's fire mitigation director.

on SPH Brightcove

On Thursday, the National Police announced they had arrested more than 450 suspects in connection with land and forest fires to discourage recalcitrant companies and farmers from clearing land illegally.

National Police chief Tito Karnavian said Indonesia had deployed a very effective strategy to reduce the number of hot spots this year. On Aug. 16 the number of hot spots nationwide was 482, which was down from 14,451 last year.

In 2013, smoky haze from forest fires in Indonesia spread to Singapore, causing Singaporeans to suffer from their worst pollution in 16 years. The three-hour PSI in the country reached a record high of 401 in June that year, surpassing the country's previously highest level of 226 recorded in 1997.

In 2014, Indonesia agreed to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (AATHP) in order to expedite the process of preventing and monitoring cross-border smoke pollution. The agreement was also meant to facilitate co-operation with other ASEAN members, including Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei Darussalam.

In 2015, Vice President Jusuf Kalla criticised Singapore for complaining about haze and asked the city-state's citizens to instead be grateful for the clean air they enjoyed during the rest of the year. He argued that Indonesia had repeatedly apologised for the forest fires that lead to haze problems in Singapore and Malaysia.

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