Friday, 25 September 2015

Haze forces closure of schools across Singapore on 25 September 2015

Unprecedented move due to possibility of PSI hitting hazardous levels: Heng Swee Keat
By Joanna Seow and Lester Hio, The Straits Times, 25 Sep 2015

All primary and secondary schools in Singapore have been forced to close today (Sept 25), after hazy conditions - the worst this year - threatened to become hazardous.

PSI levels yesterday crossed into the very unhealthy range. At 10pm, the 24-hour PSI had soared to 223- 275. Beyond 300, it is hazardous.

This is the first time Singapore's schools are being closed due to the haze.

The decision was made "given the prediction that we cannot rule out the possibility of the haze condition getting into the hazardous range," said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat last night, at a multi-agency briefing also attended by Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say.

Some GCE O-level exams set for today have been postponed, while the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) hangs in the balance, as written papers are set to begin next week.

"There will be no national shutdown of workplaces," said Mr Lim, though he added that companies should take measures to help employees, such as enforcing more frequent breaks and making work less strenuous.

The Government is also adding to earlier measures to help people cope with the haze: vulnerable and needy Singaporeans will be able to collect masks from 108 community centres islandwide from 10am to 10pm from today.

Organisations are already taking steps to safeguard members of the public and workers.

The Singapore Sports Hub, for example, suspended strenuous outdoor activities and fast-food restaurants like McDonald's and KFC halted delivery services for now.

There might be some respite over the weekend, as winds are forecast to shift.

But the hazy conditions might last for another month or more, as this is an El Nino year which could see dry weather until November, warned Dr Balakrishnan.

"Our offer of assistance to (the Indonesian authorities) is still on the table, and we still stand ready to work with our Asean partners to resolve this problem," he reiterated.

Foreign and Law Minister K. Shanmugam affirmed this stance and described his observations in a Facebook post last night. He wrote: "As I walked around, the impact of the haze, on people, was obvious. I was coughing, eyes itching, the heat oppressive. Our senior citizens must be feeling much worse."

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who was visiting emergency workers in Banjarbaru, South Kalimantan on Wednesday, had planned to inspect ground conditions and firefighting efforts in Sumatra yesterday but worsening conditions in Kalimantan prompted him to postpone the trip.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminded people to take care of their health.

In a Facebook post yesterday, he wrote: "Please drink plenty of water, and avoid going outdoors if you can. Look out for neighbours and friends, and stay safe."

Additional reporting by Francis Chan and Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja

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Steps to look after those who turn up in schools
By Lester Hio and Joanna Seow, The Straits Times, 25 Sep 2015

Parents had to make alternative plans for their children last night as the haze caused primary and secondary schools around the island to be closed.

Video producer Melvyn Goh said his two daughters, who are both in primary school, will stay at home with their helper.

"Thankfully that's settled, because my wife is overseas, so if we didn't have a helper I might have had to cancel my video shoot to look after them," said the 39-year-old.

"My Primary 1 daughter is happy there's no school, but the Primary 4 one said she was 'bummed out' about it because there was a netball competition she was looking forward to."

The Ministry of Education (MOE) had prepared for such an eventuality and is keeping schools open for students who turn up, with supervisors on hand to look after them in libraries and other rooms. National examinations scheduled for today have also been postponed.

More than 100 students who were due to take the GCE O-level Music and Higher Music practical exams today will take them at 8am next Tuesday instead.

They were notified of the rescheduling by their schools yesterday while private candidates were informed by the exam board.

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Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said at a media briefing last night that there has been a general upward trend in the hourly raw concentration of PM2.5 particles, which affects the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI).

There was a brief respite over last weekend and early this week as the winds were blowing from the south and south-east.

The haze returned in force on Wednesday due to a change in wind direction because of a tropical storm in the western Pacific Ocean, east of the Philippines.

The storm acts as a "low-pressure zone", said Dr Balakrishnan. That causes wind to blow from the south or south-west, sending haze from a dense haze cloud sitting slightly to the south of Singapore into the nation.

Contingency plans for national examinations are in place should haze conditions remain unhealthy or worsen. All schools have enclosed spaces for candidates to take their exams, and schools will also be provided with air purifiers so that exams are not disrupted.

"We will certainly announce our plans if we need. This is a very fast-moving situation, but we are prepared," said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat. Should the air quality enter the hazardous level resulting in further school closures, exams will be rescheduled.

Some companies possibly responsible for the haze have been identified, Dr Balakrishnan added.

The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act punishes polluters who cause haze. They can be fined up to $100,000 per day, capped at a total of $2 million.

Dr Balakrishnan said: "The National Environment Agency has written to the Indonesian authorities, asking for a list of companies whom the Indonesian investigations have shown may be implicated in this. Pursuant to our Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, we will be issuing notices in the days to come."

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Singapore's anti-haze law needs more bite, say experts
By Audrey Tan and Samantha Boh, The Straits Times, 25 Sep 2015

The seriousness of out-of-control burning activities in Indonesia continues to be felt in the region despite efforts to put out fires.

Experts say more must be done to punish offenders, or the haze problem will not go away.

Among their suggestions are harsher fines, rewards for informants, more policing and closer cooperation among the authorities.

Some also suggest a procurement policy that ensures goods and services are obtained from sustainable and responsible sources.

Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan said: "The law should require the Government to take the lead and adopt (such a procurement policy).

"This can help (ensure) its investments and business partners are not engaging in conduct that is detrimental to the health of Singaporeans and our economy."

He was referring to Singapore's Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, which was passed in Parliament last year to punish those responsible for causing or condoning fires if burning results in unhealthy levels of haze in Singapore.

"It would be the height of irony if the haze was caused, directly and indirectly, by companies with a strong Singaporean connection, whether in terms of ownership or investments by Singapore entities," said Associate Professor Tan.

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A Singapore-listed firm is under investigation for causing forest fires in Indonesia, an Indonesian official said on Tuesday.

Singapore's Ministry for the Environment and Water Resources is also investigating two recent breaches of the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.

Those found guilty under the Act can be fined up to $100,000 a day, capped at a total of $2 million, for causing unhealthy haze, defined as a 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index value of 101 or greater for 24 hours or more.

But Professor Ng Yew-Kwang, an economist from Nanyang Technological University, said the fines were too low and suggested that they be increased by at least a hundred times. "Some may think that $100,000 a day is a big penalty. However, since the haze affects all people in Singapore, that sum is less than two cents a day per person," he pointed out. "This is certainly far less than 1 per cent of any reasonable estimate of the costs of haze at any unhealthy level."

National University of Singapore economist Ivan Png said the law could include a whistle-blower provision to reward those with information leading to convictions. "Whistle-blowers have been instrumental in exposing white-collar and environmental crime in the United States and Europe. We can apply the same concept to combat the haze.

"We might then even get the help of local government officials and plantation workers in Sumatra. The prospect of a whistle-blower reward worth perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars would certainly focus their minds," said Professor Png, who suggested a reward 12 times the informant's annual income.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for non-governmental environmental organisation World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore said the biggest difficulty with the new law was verifying who started the fires, which depends on Jakarta's capacity to monitor the ground. She added: "It will also depend on the Act's ability to target smaller companies suspected of causing fires, (and) to follow the supply chain to the giant corporations they supply."

Dr Nigel Sizer, global director of the forests programme at US-based think-tank World Resources Institute, and SMU law professor Mahdev Mohan called for greater dialogue between governments, firms and environmental groups which "may have an accurate lay of the land", as a way of solving the haze issue made complicated by Indonesia's complex, often overlapping land ownership and usage rights.

The experts agree that while the law may be a step in the right direction, it does not yet have any bite. As SMU's Prof Tan put it: "It's small comfort to most Singaporeans... plagued by the scourge of the haze and for which the law strikes them as being a paper tiger."

Animals suffering from bad air quality as well
By Jasmine Osada, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2015

The bad air quality is not only affecting people and businesses, but is also making animals here sick.

Vets have been reporting an increase in the number of pets suffering from eye irritations and upper respiratory infections that they are attributing to the haze.

"There hasn't been an increase in the overall number of visits, but my colleagues and I have definitely seen more cases of pets suffering from environmental allergen-related problems such as increased tearing, eye infections, asthma and coughing," said Dr Angeline Yang, 28, of United Veterinary Clinic in Ang Mo Kio.

At The Animal Doctors veterinary clinic, also in Ang Mo Kio, Dr Cathy Chan, 35, has not been seeing any extra cases but believes this is because pet owners are being more vigilant about keeping their animals indoors, thus potentially reducing the number of cases.

"However, since the haze was at its worst only on Thursday, it may still be too early to tell, as the symptoms arise only several days later," she added.

Some pet-related events have also been cancelled because of the deteriorating air quality.

The Singapore alliance of the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA), which organises canine agility trails here, has cancelled trials originally scheduled for today.

Animal shelters have put in place safety measures.

Staff at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) have been closely monitoring its shelter animals for signs of possible haze-induced afflictions.

"The shelter's fans have all been powered on around the clock and water in the water bowls is more frequently replaced too," said SPCA executive director Corinne Fong.

"Dog walks have been minimised and the dogs will not be taken out for walks once the 24-hour PSI reading breaches the 200 mark," she added.

With the hazy conditions expected to persist, pet owners are keeping their critters indoors.

Marketing assistant Amy Lin, 26, said: "I usually take my dog out for a walk every day, but since

the haze has got bad, I've been taking him out only about twice a week.

"I feel bad but I don't want him to be outside for too long because it's bad for him."

Additional reporting by Tiffany Fumiko Tay

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