Don't expect problem to go away in next few months: Experts

SINGAPORE - The regional outcry over the haze may make companies in Indonesia wary of starting more fires, but Singaporeans cannot expect the problem to go away in the next few months, say experts.

The reason is twofold: The dry season there is expected to last until September, and the raging fires so far have been on peatland which can defy firefighting efforts.

"During the dry season, even a cigarette can start a fire on peatland," said Mr Bustar Maitar, head of environmental group Greenpeace's forest campaign in Indonesia.

"Peatland is organic material that is supposed to be always wet. To develop their plantations, companies have been draining the land to bring the water level down."

Peatland fires also tend to smoulder underground even after they have been put out, and can start burning again.

"Every time we think that we have put out the fire, it resurfaces," said Mr Jaafar Arit, head of a disaster management agency in Riau, which is ground zero for the fires causing the haze.

Firefighters had extinguished several fires there five times, only to see them rise from the ground again, he said.

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Even Indonesia's attempts to artificially create rain and douse the fires depend on favourable weather, said Dr Benjamin Grandey of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology.

"Any attempt at cloud-seeding requires the presence of a cloud," he said.

He added that the science behind cloud-seeding to create rain is inconclusive.

"I am sceptical that anyone can really say how exactly cloud-seeding will impact any given cloud's development," said Dr Grandey.

Still, the historically bad haze this year, which saw the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index hit a record level of 401 at noon last Friday, could lead to change in the long run, said academics.

Said Ms Khor Yu Leng, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) who does research on palm oil agri-business: "The mood seems different nowadays. Plantations have quickly reiterated zero-burn policies and corporate owners started to be named within two days of the record (PSI) readings.

"The word 'negligence' has been mentioned by Mr Hadi Daryanto, general secretary of Indonesia's Forestry Ministry.

"This should scare the corporate sector."

She also said more advanced technology can now finger errant companies quickly.

"Technology such as satellite imagery has matured and its usage expanded," she said.

"Proof can be a lot more easily established as satellite images of fires can be overlaid on concession maps."

Daily or more frequent images can even show where fires start and how they spread.

"Bad news can no longer be so easily contained and inconvenient truths obscured," she said.

Iseas senior fellow Lee Poh Onn, who specialises in environmental management issues, believes that the record pollution may exert pressure on Indonesia to ratify the Asean agreement on transboundary haze pollution.

"Indonesia will also need to restructure its current forest management practices so that there will be a centralised body given more power and resources to manage oil palm plantations and the issue of open burning," he said.

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