Why the haze is not going away soon

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For years now, Singapore has had to contend with the haze – in 2013, it was so bad that the PSI hit a record 401. This year, they’re warning everyone that it may be just as bad. So, what’s with the haze and what is (or isn’t) being done to prevent this trans-boundary issue?

The haze seems to be something that we all are familiar with – something like the monsoon. The heavily polluted air is causing inconveniences (ie. you can’t exercise outdoors) and health issues for all of us (some are suffering from watery eyes, sore throat, cough, headache, or all of the above).

Last Friday, our PSI hit 211 – the highest this season. It was also the same time Indonesian authorities sent 10,000 troops to fight the fires in Sumatra (ground zero for forest burnings). On Monday, Indonesia declared a state of emergency, sending aircrafts to Riau province – where the fires are fiercest – for water-bombing and cloud-seeding.

The air in the region has become so hazy that even the satellites were unable to pinpoint exact hotspots. So what causes these fires?

“Anyone who has ever spent time in Kalimantan or Sumatra during the dry season knows that burning land for agriculture, for hunting, or just for fun is a favourite pastime of many,” says conservationist Erik Meijaard. Just for fun?

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Alas, the solution is much more complex than just finding and arresting those guilty of starting fires. According to an Indonesian palm plantation owner, there are many issues at play. As the Indonesian government sees it, the haze only affects mainly 1 province (they have 33), and it’s a seasonal problem. At the moment, they’re tackling more pressing nationwide issues like:

  • reducing corruption
  • addressing food security (amid rising food prices)
  • infrastructure
  • wage confrontation

So, it’s not that the haze isn’t an issue – it’s just bumped down on the list. It’s probably the reason they waited until the situation got really bad in Riau before help was sent.

Indonesia needs to adopt a zero-tolerance policy to forest fires (in addition to providing more sustainable options) as they affect not only Southeast Asia’s air quality, but trans-boundary relations. Singapore isn’t the only country to offer help with the haze issue – Norway pledged $1 billion in 2010 to help them to reduce emissions and forest degradation, but the program failed to meet its goals. So far large, established palm oil companies are becoming members of RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil), but even this doesn’t address slash-and-burn agriculture or those who burn ‘for fun’.

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According to the latest weather reports, Singapore will be experiencing a rather rainy week, which will hopefully bring us some respite. Otherwise we’ll have to wait until November when the northeast monsoon brings both favourable wind conditions, and the much needed rains to put out the fires for good.

Last week, the haze led to the cancellation of the POSB kids’ run, w
hile the Yellow Ribbon Run turned into a ‘walk’. There are reports that suggest this weekend’s F1 may be affected should the current rains not be sufficient enough to clear the air.

The bigger issue here is the heat, deforestation, the associated reduced crop yields and the disease outbreaks – all of which cost billions of dollars to Indonesia’s economy. But nobody here seems to be bothered about that.

This is a summary of an article on Forbes.

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