Monday, 5 October 2015

Haze in Singapore: A problem dating back 40 years

Singapore's haze problem dates back to the 1970s, records show
By Samantha Boh and Carolyn Khew, The Straits Times, 3 Oct 2015

Singapore has been plagued by haze since the 1970s, and it is unrealistic to think that the problem can be solved in three years, as Indonesian President Joko Widodo has predicted, experts told The Straits Times.

While some of the measures he put in place may help alleviate the situation, broad changes must happen both on the ground and at the government level there to have a real impact.

Said Professor Euston Quah, head of Nanyang Technological University's Department of Economics: "It will certainly take more than three years to greatly reduce the fire episodes."

Among other things, laws need to be changed and greater coordination is required among various government institutions, he said.

And National University of Singapore law professor Alan Tan noted that the problem was not just about companies setting fires, but hinged on the unfair parcelling of land.

"There is a deeper problem of land use inequity affecting local communities whose lands are taken by the companies, often with the collusion of corrupt officials. This results in villagers encroaching into plantation lands, and both sides use fires indiscriminately for their own ends," he said. "This aspect of the problem cannot realistically be solved in a matter of a few years. It must involve fundamental reform of land use policies."

Prof Tan stressed that there is no way to ban fires altogether, as it remains the fastest and cheapest way to clear land in an agrarian economy like Indonesia.

"The goal should be to ensure controlled burning, and this must take into account complexities like weather patterns, peat lands, land use disputes, local government autonomy and corrupt local officials."

Records show that the haze has plagued Singapore as far back as 43 years ago.

On Oct 18, 1972, a Straits Times article headlined "Persistent haze" warned Singaporeans to prepare for several more weeks of haze discomfort caused by extensive fires in Sumatra and Indonesia Borneo. Shocked citizens had then said they were suffocating in their flats.

An earlier article that month had reported that a "heavy dust haze enveloped large area of Singapore", affecting thousands of commuters.

That was to be the first of many similar experiences.

The haze has shrouded the island time and again, and now, Singapore is bracing itself for what could be its worst prolonged spell of haze to date.

Scientists have warned that this year's episode could be as bad as or even worse than 1997's conditions - widely regarded as the most serious haze event on record. That year, the haze lasted three months and cost Singapore an estimated US$163 million (S$232 million).

This year, it has so far stretched for 11/2 months, with no respite in sight.

Dr Erik Velasco, a research scientist from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, said: "If it is true that the current conditions are tracking those experienced in 1997, we should be prepared for a longer period of haze, with levels similar to those experienced during the last three weeks."

Additional reporting by Seow Bei Yi and Lee Min Kok

"By 9pm, practically every part of Singapore was fog-bound." Sound familiar? This line is from a 1972 Straits Times report.
Posted by The Straits Times on Friday, October 2, 2015

Haze crisis set to be 'one of the worst on record'
NASA warns that prolonged dry season ahead may worsen air pollution levels in the region
By Francis Chan, Indonesia Bureau Chief In Jakarta, The Straits Times, 3 Oct 2015

The transboundary haze crisis, which has sent air pollution levels soaring, is on course to set a new precedent with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) the latest to say it could become one of the worst on record.

Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan - one of the hardest hit by smoke from raging forest fires in Indonesia - yesterday had a Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) level that hit 1,936. In Indonesia, a PSI reading of 350 and above is considered hazardous. It takes a far lower reading for schools to be closed.

Thousands of troops and policemen have been deployed to fight forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra, the other island where fires are burning on peatlands starved of moisture due to the lack of rain.

The Indonesian national police have arrested hundreds of suspects and started probes into several plantation firms in connection with the use of outlawed slash-and-burn techniques to clear land. Canals with dams in fire-prone areas are being built to prevent peatlands from drying out in the dry season.

These measures, observers told The Straits Times earlier this week, are by far the most wide-ranging effort by any Indonesian government in dealing with the annual haze crisis since 1997.

However, NASA warns that the prolonged dry season ahead means air pollution levels in the region may be among the worst on record.

"Conditions in Singapore and south-eastern Sumatra are tracking close to 1997," said Dr Robert Field, a Columbia University scientist based at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in an Agence France-Presse report yesterday.

"If the forecasts for a longer dry season hold, this suggests 2015 will rank among the most severe events on record."

Climate experts here have said the dry weather will continue to pose the greatest challenge in the fight against the haze. Most agree with Dr Field, noting that the extreme dry weather during this El Nino season will continue to cause peatlands to burn more readily.

Palangkaraya-based weather forecaster Roland Binery told The Straits Times that the haze in the area worsened again yesterday because there were new fires developing and spreading in the Tumbang Nusa and Pulang Pisau areas.

"The prevailing wind blew from the south carrying the smoke from there to Palangkaraya," he said.

Singapore's Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) said yesterday that it had reiterated on Thursday the country's offer of help to tackle the fires, including providing aircraft to conduct water bombing and cloud-seeding operations.

"Indonesia clarified at the meeting that it had enough resources of its own and did not need to call on the assistance offered by Singapore at this time," said MEWR, referring to the high-level meeting between Singapore and Indonesia on Thursday, initiated by the Indonesian government.

Additional reporting by Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja in Palangkaraya (Central Kalimantan province)

Why haze problem is so hard to resolve
By Jackson Ewing, Published The Straits Times, 3 Oct 2015

After decades of regional, national, academic and civil society attention, the haze problem is as intractable as ever.

Recent efforts to combat haze have been far from cursory. The source country Indonesia has enacted logging moratoria, combined its environmental and forestry ministries, and ratified - albeit with great delay - the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in September last year. It has improved its land concession maps, expanded programmes on community-based forest management and fire prevention, levied a fine of over US$25 million (S$37 million) on an offending palm oil producer, and recently arrested executives of companies allegedly behind the current fires.

Singapore has commissioned studies on haze reduction, pursued tangible cooperation with nearby Indonesian provinces, and passed legislation holding offending companies culpable. Large private sector players have recognised the reputational risks they face from the haze, and dedicated greater resources towards eliminating haze-causing activities from their supply chains. Research institutes have improved monitoring and assessment, while civil society organisations have helped build capacities on the ground.

Still, the problem pervades the dry months and defies solutions. The primary reasons are threefold.


First, the forces causing the haze are outpacing efforts to mitigate it. While Indonesia has taken recent steps to combat the fires causing the haze, it has simultaneously advanced its palm oil and pulp and paper sectors as key engines of the wider economy. After surpassing Malaysia as the world's leading producer of palm oil in 2006, Indonesia announced plans to double production and brought millions of new hectares under cultivation.

These plantations now cover an area more than twice the size of Singapore and Belgium. Meanwhile demand for paper continues to rise in emerging Asian economies, particularly China, and Indonesian plantations reflect the country's place as a key supplier. Indonesia's pulp and paper industry may expand by 20 per cent between 2014 and 2016, and projects strong longer-term growth.

The boom in these sectors has changed their structures and characteristics. Expansion has been defined largely by estate-level land clearance, with blurred lines between corporate firms and the small-scale landowners they often contract out to. There is also a growing presence of mid-sized actors that develop plantations but have scant or non-existent public profiles.

These actors gain official and unofficial concessions from local governments, whose leaders seek capital for their budgets, their campaigns, and on some occasions, their wallets.

Haze does not present the same reputational risks to these mid-level operatives as it does to large corporations like Nestle and Golden Agri-Resources - both of which have implemented haze prevention policies.


Second, the source areas of the haze are getting hotter and drier. Burning remains an attractive method for land clearing because it is quick and efficient, requires minimal labour, enriches soils, and acts as a default strategy in lieu of affordable alternatives. In years like 2015 with a strong El Nino warming trend, fires often become large and difficult to control. In carbon-rich peatlands, these fires can burn for weeks and spread far beyond their areas of origin, which in turn problematises efforts to establish culpability. With climate change projections predicting warming trends and drier months in equatorial South-east Asia, these problems may well become more acute.


Third, the redoubled effort to combat the haze are relatively new and will take time to be effective. Indonesia's levying of fines and arresting of executives send important signals, but the legal processes surrounding these efforts take years and do not appreciably change the short-term conditions on the ground in Indonesian plantations.

It remains difficult to identify haze-causing culprits even with new legislation, greater enforcement ambitions, and better maps detailing where concessions are situated.

Time may improve the effectiveness of these mechanisms but, as the current smoke demonstrates, they are not up to the near-term challenge.


Despite these limitations, continued regional cooperation on the haze issue is imperative, without viable alternatives. Affected Indonesian citizens suffer even more painfully than their neighbours during acute haze episodes, and hope for solutions as much as anyone. Such solutions are taking shape, but better outcomes may be years in the offing.

Such is often the case with transboundary environmental challenges, which leave impacted countries vulnerable to effects that they cannot prevent through their own action. These countries are left to respond to the environmental stress that they inherit at home, while trying to stimulate changes in neighbouring territories.

Singapore is on such a trajectory, but, as Euston Quah and Tan Tsiat Siong recently wrote in The Straits Times, Singaporeans will likely be asked to "accept that the haze will be with us for years to come, and learn to live with it while mitigation efforts are ongoing". This assessment seems likely to bear out, as near-term solutions remain difficult.

Jackson Ewing is Director of Asian Sustainability, Asia Society Policy Institute in New York and an Adjunct Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.

Maybe monkeys too need N95 masks
The haze is also affecting wildlife in Singapore, not just the people
By Natalia Huang, Published The Straits Times, 3 Oct 2015

Dry throat and itchy eyes - Singapore residents have all become reluctantly familiar with the effects of haze on our bodies. Even pets are suffering from haze-related illnesses, as reported recently.

So what about the wild animals in Singapore's forests and streams? They don't have the luxury of N95 masks or air purifiers (whose value in a forest would be questionable), and they can't escape behind closed windows. Are they dying in the dozens or doing just fine?

Essentially, the scientific answer is: We don't know. Little research has been conducted on the topic.

As an ecologist, I've spoken to several zoologists and botanists on this topic recently. Based on what we know about animals and their needs, and what we know about the haze, these experts shared their observations and opinions on the potential impact of haze.

The haze has two main effects on the environment that affect animals: smoke and sunshine.


First, smoke. This is the most obvious effect of haze. Animals need to breathe, and the presence of smoke and pollutants in the air could cause breathing difficulties for them just like it does for humans.

Birds, for example, consistently take in oxygen to support their active lifestyles of flying, foraging for food, looking for a mate and singing. With less available oxygen in the smoky air to fuel them, birds might be expected to be less active.

And that seems to be the case - captive birds are reported to be quieter and less active on hazy days, and researchers have noticed bird activity to be lower this month in an ongoing rooftop garden study. This means less time spent doing important things like looking for a mate.

Frogs, too, are less active during the haze, not unlike their response during dry periods, Dr David Bickford, an expert on frogs, says. Their permeable skins and need for moisture might mean they are sensitive to the hotter and drier air the haze brings. Frogs may be quieter during hazy periods, with the males not calling as passionately.

The effects of smoke on mammals are probably easier to understand as they are most like us. For example, monkeys have eyes like ours and lungs like ours (albeit smaller and therefore less able to handle pollutants), and probably experience a dry throat and itchy eyes like we do.

In the immediate term, young and elderly monkeys might suffer the most, but the rest of the population is likely to be fine, if slightly less rambunctious than usual.


If we are lucky, the haze-filtered sun casts an eerie orange light on the country; if we are unlucky, the sun is blocked out entirely, and this seems to bother some animals.

Two butterfly experts, Mr Anuj Jain and Mr Simon Chan, told me they recall seeing fewer butterflies during the 2013 haze event, and think this might have been related to the lack of sunshine.

Butterflies are more active on sunny days, frenetically feeding and frolicking with potential suitors. When butterflies are less active, they might not reproduce - and given that the average lifespan of an adult butterfly is three weeks, (well within the normal timeframe of a haze event), the butterflies might die without reproducing.

But decreased activity in one or two generations is not enough to impact the populations, Mr Jain says, as insect numbers naturally fluctuate over time. Butterflies have a neat survival trick of choosing to spend more time in egg or pupae stages until they sense better environmental conditions for life.

Butterflies and other wildlife in this region have probably not evolved to deal with fire and haze, given that it is a recent human-induced phenomenon. Short-term disruptions may not affect entire species or ecosystems, but long-term effects are unknown.

Apart from animals, plants also depend on sunshine. They need sunshine to photosynthesise, and this gives them food to grow and to produce leaves and fruit. Less sunshine is available to plants when dust settles on their leaves and when the sun is blocked out by the haze.

Extensive research in Indonesia has been conducted on plant response to haze since the 1990s - their findings show that plants grow slower, lose leaves faster and photosynthesise less due to reduced radiation and elevated pollution levels.

This means plants will probably produce fewer fruits when it's hazy. This is why palm oil production is expected to be lower this year as less palm fruit is expected.


But there is yet another consequence of haze that could damage the health of plants, wildlife and entire ecosystems: the effect of acidity and nutrients.

If the haze is a result of forest fires, it follows that haze is composed of carbon-based particles. When these particles dissolve in rainwater, it could result in acidification of the rainwater, which in turn would increase the acidity of any environment that the rainwater lands in.

Such acidic rain could dissolve protective leaf cuticles, increase soil acidity leading to root death, and affect vital soil cycles. All of this would weaken plants, leaving them vulnerable to pathogen attack, says botanist Lahiru Wijedasa.

"Increasing acidity just needs to affect one plant process in a magnitude enough that will affect everything else - and the same applies to all ecosystem processes," Mr Wijedasa told me.

Ecosystem-level changes could be more dangerous than changes to individual species as such changes could impact entire ecosystems and the plants and animals that make up that ecosystem.

Increasing acidity could also directly affect aquatic animals such as tiny insects, crabs and frogs. Such species can be more sensitive to pollutants, and may also react to any increase in nutrient levels in the streams. While nutrients are desirable, excess nutrients can have devastating effects on ecosystems, particularly freshwater systems.

Researchers found nutrient levels of nitrogen and phosphorus were up to eight times higher in the coastal waters of Singapore during previous haze events - but we don't know if similar effects occur in our forest streams too.

Frog eggs and tadpole development could be compromised, especially in our less hardy forest species, which are more likely to undergo high physiological stress, says Ms Mary-Ruth Low, amphibian and reptile researcher.

But the impact of haze may not be direct. A real risk is that the haze depresses the immune system of an animal and leaves it open to attack from bacteria, viruses and other baddies - this is why we often get colds during a haze event. A disease a healthy animal can fight off under normal conditions might become the straw that breaks the camel's back in the haze.

In the absence of rigorous studies, all we can offer as wildlife and ecology experts are our observations and considered opinions. Wildlife - and humans - might be able to handle short bouts of haze, but of concern is prolonged exposure, repeated exposure, high extremes and the impact over the long term.

How to mitigate the impact of the haze on wildlife is similar to that for humans - reduce the haze through better agricultural practices - for example, sustainable oil palm practices which do not burn forests or peat forests for planting crops.

What's good for Homo sapiens in this case is good for wildlife too.

The writer is principal ecologist at Ecology Matters, an environmental consultancy providing ecological advice and biodiversity studies for environmental impact assessments.

Despite the haze blanketing Singapore over the past few weeks, its residents have helped lift the gloom with small acts of kindness and jokes about the situation.
Posted by The Straits Times on Sunday, October 4, 2015

Tough to pinpoint haze culprits
NEA does not engage in cloud seeding to clear haze: Vivian Balakrishnan
Government lays out measures to tackle effects of haze

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