Monday 8 July 2013

Singapore has learnt 5 key lessons from haze crisis: Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen

Ng Eng Hen says the authorities will continue to monitor situation, fine-tune contingency plans
By Feng Zengkun, The Sunday Times, 7 Jul 2013

Singapore will be even better prepared for the haze if it returns with a vengeance, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, pointing to five key lessons learnt from the latest episode.

At a press conference last Friday to assess the recent haze crisis, he added that the authorities will continue to monitor the situation and fine-tune contingency plans.

Dr Ng, who heads an inter-ministerial committee to tackle the haze problem, said: "I think we are better prepared, both our people and agencies. If the haze does return we are confident that Singaporeans will take it in our stride."

Last month, the annual haze in Singapore worsened to unprecedented levels, with the three-hourly Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hitting a record 401 on June 21.

Air becomes hazardous when the index crosses 300.

Fires in Indonesia had led to the pollution here, before rain, fire-fighting efforts and winds gave Singapore a respite.

During a community event at Pasir Ris Elias Community Club yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean also spoke about the recent crisis, saying episodes such as the haze were "a timely reminder of the importance of being prepared in different emergency situations".

Haze is a long-term issue

Dr Ng said the first thing Singaporeans need to realise is that the haze is a long-term problem.

Reports showed that both small farmers and large corporations in Indonesia are still burning forests to clear the land for crops.

"Our records on haze go as far back as the 1970s, and I suspect this slash-and-burn practice will be hard to eradicate and change overnight. This is an area where we need a multi-pronged approach," said Dr Ng, adding that Singapore must keep up diplomatic efforts with Indonesia.

Last week, Indonesia began preparations to ratify an Asean agreement on transboundary haze after meetings with Singapore and other Asean members.

The Republic also needs to enlist non-government groups to help spread environmentally friendly land-clearing practices in Indonesia, for example, mechanical methods such as using bull-dozers.

Better early warning system

At home, Dr Ng has called for a better early warning system for haze.

PSI readings, he pointed out, show what the air quality was like in the past hours or days, not what it would be in the near future. But a predictive model will help Singaporeans plan ahead.

The Government responded with health advisories for the next day, but he wants more to be done. He said the Environment Ministry is already looking at a better model to predict haze conditions. "I think it will help us all," Dr Ng said.

Information management is key

But how the information is presented to the public is also key.

While some preferred simple guidelines on how to react to the haze in the recent crisis, others expected detailed information.

"I agree that we can improve on this," said Dr Ng, explaining that the Government recognises the need to cater to different groups.

Asked why the relevant ministries' contingency plans were announced only almost a week after the haze hit record levels, given that the haze was a perennial problem, he stressed that the plans were in place but had to be "customised" for the specific crisis.

"These contingency plans are generic in the sense that they respond to say, the haze, flu pandemics, terrorist threats. Each time we have an emergency or crisis, they are updated."

The Singapore System is robust

Despite the challenges, Singapore was able to respond quicker this time, thanks to its experience in handling major events such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003.

Dr Ng pointed out that the Government had distributed millions of face masks to homes and retailers within days. "Obviously there is room for improvement each time something happens, but we know our plans and structures are functioning as intended."

The authorities also rolled out other measures immediately, including subsidised medical treatment for haze-related conditions.

Singaporeans are resilient

But it was not just the Government which responded. Dr Ng lauded the initiatives taken by Singaporeans in helping one another fight the haze.

Not only did people get together to source and distribute masks, some even opened their air-conditioned homes so that others could take refuge from the haze, Dr Ng pointed out.

"That tells us the level of trust and care we have for one another," he said. "This is a good sign for nation-building. And I think if Singaporeans continue to respond this way it adds to our resilience."

Dr Ng said Singapore depended on Indonesia to solve the haze problem at its source.

"But if we take sensible precautions, look after ourselves and each other, the haze won't disrupt our lives. If the haze returns, I'm confident that Singaporeans will take it in (their) stride."


The health risks posed by the haze

We would like to tell Singaporeans, "You know what your health risks are when you are exposed to so many hours (of haze)"... But the data, unfortunately, is not that precise... Experts tell us that when conditions worsen, please stay indoors... that is the best they can do.

I think what people are doing - staying indoors, closing the doors, (using) fans, some using air purifiers - is the best that we can do on current evidence. Until somebody comes up with better studies to show that the risks actually are much more or much less, then we can calibrate it.

Why it took a while for the Government to announce its haze contingency plans

The plans were in place but we have to customise them to a specific threat. The fact that the haze went into unhealthy levels and we were able to activate masks, within a day or two, was a fairly quick response... This is in no way saying that we are satisfied with the response; we can always sharpen it... The fact that well over 80 per cent of Singaporeans polled said that Singapore would get through the haze, I think it's a measure of confidence in our system.

Whether Singapore can withstand a bigger crisis

I, personally, am gratified by the way Singaporeans have responded. There was a certain robustness in the systems, and more important than that, the way Singaporeans reached out to help one another.... it tells us the level of trust and care that we have for one another, which is essential in any crisis.

You can have the best-laid plans but if you don't have trust and care for one another, then you know it's each man for himself. So as long as we have that, I am confident that we can keep updating, keep strengthening...

Grandma who helps keep tabs on haze
She has been involved in monitoring Singapore's air quality for over 30 years
By Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 8 Jul 2013

LIKE any concerned grandmother, Mrs Indrani Rajaram kept her grandsons indoors during the recent great haze episode.

But Mrs Rajaram, 58, is more familiar with the hazards of air pollution than perhaps any other grandparent in the country.

During this year's, as well as in past haze seasons, the National Environment Agency's chief scientific officer has explained the finer points of air quality monitoring, air pollution and the PSI at every technical briefing for the media or policymakers.

She and her team worked seven days a week to monitor and maintain the network of machinery that measures Singapore's air quality and provides the PSI readings.

Singapore's worst recorded haze to date, hitting a high of 401 last month, was her biggest challenge in over 30 years on the job, she said.

In 1974, she joined the government's Department of Scientific Services fresh from a bachelor's degree in chemistry at the University of Singapore, and was sent to the young Anti-Pollution Unit at the Prime Minister's Office to manage the newly set-up air quality monitoring network: six stations in rural and city areas.

"One was on the roof of City Hall," Mrs Rajaram said. "In those days, automatic analysis was not available, and it had to be done manually."

At each station, air samples would bubble through bottles full of chemicals that would absorb or react with the different pollutants. Officers would then collect these and analyse them in a laboratory at Princess House in Alexandra Road.

Mrs Rajaram, who grew up in a kampung in the MacPherson area, is the middle child of a housewife and a daily-rated labourer who worked at the Kim Chuan sewage treatment plant.

She attended Cedar Girls' School and put herself through university by giving tuition. Why study chemistry? "I had such great chemistry teachers in school. One of them - he would come in with no books, no notes and just teach us."

When the university introduced a chemical engineering course, some of the male chemistry students who did well switched to that, but the girls were discouraged from doing so. "It was a different mindset. They didn't expect women to be working in the chemical industry on Jurong Island."

On graduation, she had a scholarship to do a graduate degree, but started work to support her parents.

A sense of mission came later. "What I've found most rewarding is the contribution of my team," she said. The anti-pollution unit, which later shifted to the Environment Ministry and the NEA, has helped policymakers come up with labelling schemes for paint that contains lead; phase out mercury-based fungicides; and develop air-quality targets.

This year, besides maintaining the air quality monitoring system, Mrs Rajaram's team also fielded the toughest of the 3,000 haze-related queries that the NEA received on its public feedback hotline - such as "Why can't we stop the haze?". "People were just frustrated and angry for various reasons, and took the opportunity to blast us," she said.

But the public is also more well-informed about air quality than ever, she noted.

At 26, she married Mr M. Rajaram, a police officer turned lawyer; they have three sons aged 28 to 32 and two grandsons aged two and four.

In 2000, she returned to NUS for a master's degree in environmental engineering. "I was probably the oldest in the class - my classmates were calling me 'auntie'."

Last year, she also became project director for all the NEA's environmental monitoring systems.

So what's next? "I'm a bookworm," she said, adding with a grin: "When I retire, maybe I'll do my PhD and become one of those people who calls and asks difficult questions."

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