S'pore frustrated at slow pace in tackling haze

S'pore frustrated at slow pace in tackling haze
Haze in Singapore earlier this month. The Government has warned that the problem could become worse in the second half of the year.

SINGAPORE - A ministerial meeting of five ASEAN nations to tackle the regional haze problem ended with little progress yesterday, prompting Singapore to express frustration.

After the one-day session with Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia held in Brunei, Singapore's Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan told reporters he was "frustrated at the very slow pace of progress" and "disappointed at the lack of transparency".

A key sticking point was the reluctance of some governments to share relevant land use and concession maps, he said without naming any country.

As a result, the haze monitoring computer system developed by Singapore cannot be put to full use to pinpoint haze-causing fires and identify culprits, he added.

When asked whether Indonesia would share the maps Singapore seeks, the country's deputy minister of degradation control and climate change Arief Yuwono told reporters his government is consolidating various maps to produce a standardised "One Map".

"As long as this process is not finished yet, we cannot give the information," he said.

Dr Balakrishnan said he was told the "One Map" would not be completed for about another two years.

Much of the haze in Singapore is caused by farmers starting fires to clear land in Indonesia.

This year, Singapore faces the threat of even worse haze than last year because of two potential weather forces, according to the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre. These are: lower than usual rainfall expected from now to October in parts of the region, and the El Nino weather phenomenon, which is linked to drought.

Last year, the record-breaking haze caused an islandwide scramble for masks, with the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index, which measures air quality, peaking at a hazardous 401 on June 21.

Said Dr Balakrishnan: "We have to find a way forward so that errant companies know that governments will exchange information and collaborate to take enforcement action."

For instance, he has asked Indonesia and Malaysia to share the names of suspected culprits they are investigating for the fires.

Mr Arief said 202 individuals and 45 companies are being investigated so far this year.

Dr Balakrishnan pointed out some optimistic moves, including the progress Indonesia has made towards ratifying the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

It would, among others, let firefighters from ASEAN countries put out fires in Indonesia.

Singapore and Indonesia also plan to sign a memorandum of understanding to resume collaboration on anti-fire efforts in Indonesia.

The five ASEAN countries yesterday issued a statement pledging to "continue to be vigilant and take additional preventive measures and immediate fire suppression in the event of any... transboundary haze in the coming months".

They, however, did not specify the measures.

zengkun@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 3 in The Straits Times.

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