The haze from forest and peat fires in Indonesia continues to plague Southeast Asia for the second consecutive month with no end to the fires in sight. Singapore has stepped up efforts to tackle the problem through a combination of legal measures, citizen action, and travelling to ground zero in Indonesia’s Kalimantan province to distribute face masks.
The smoke has encroached ever-further into the region, travelling thousands of kilometres to southern Thailand and possibly the Philippines. The city of Cebu - 2,700 kilometres away from Indonesia’s Riau province, where many of the fires are burning - on Monday said that a week-long haze affecting the city was likely due to fires in the archipelago nation.
The dense smog has been hugely disruptive for affected countries. Rates of respiratory ailments have spiked - in some cases, even causing deaths in young children, schools have been closed, flights grounded, and outdoor events cancelled.
As air quality levels in the city-state remain in the unhealthy range (between 100 and 200 on the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), a measure of air quality) and occasionally spike into the Very Unhealthy digits (between PSI 201 and 300), here are five things Singapore is doing to put an end to the burning and help people cope with the pollution.
1. Unprecedented legal action
Singapore’s government on September 25 announced that it had written to four Indonesian companies suspected of contributing to haze pollution, asking them to step up their fire-fighting efforts and submit plans on how they would prevent future burning to the National Environment Agency (NEA).
These legal proceedings are backed by the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA), a bill passed last year that allows Singapore to slap a fine of up to S$2 million on companies responsible for causing haze pollution in Singapore.
NEA also served the Singapore branch of Indonesian paper giant Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) a notice, demanding information on its subsidiaries and steps taken by them to put out fires. APP said that it has submitted the information required, and invited NEA officials to visit its operations, saying that “we have nothing to hide”.
In response to queries from Eco-Business, NEA said that it is continuing with its investigations and will share more information when ready.
2. People power
Meanwhile, frustrated citizens are taking matters in their own hands, with a civic group exploring the possibility of a class action lawsuit against companies responsible for the illegal burning.
The Haze Elimination Action Team (HEAT), led by Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information professor Ang Peng Hwa, on September 24 announced on Facebook that HEAT is looking for an “ideal plaintiff” who had been adversely affected by the haze, as well as pro-bono legal help.
The Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) may be just who HEAT is looking for. It announced on Saturday that it had to cancel an event at the FINA/airweave World Cup competition because the PSI hit 190.
The association’s vice president of finance, Jose Raymond, said in a statement that the haze is not just a health issue, “it also destroys the months of hard work put into preparing for programmes and events” like the tournament.
“SSA will seek legal advice and may consider joining other parties and individuals in any class action suit which is brought against any Singapore-listed company,” he added.
3. Environmental activism
The Singapore Environment Council (SEC), the non-profit which administers the Singapore Green Label certification scheme, has been conducting checks to ensure the paper products it certifies are not linked to the haze.
In a joint statement issued with the Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE), SEC revealed that 10 companies - including Kimberly-Clark Products Malaysia, Fuji Xerox Singapore, Canon Singapore, and April Fine Paper Trading - had confirmed that they do not use raw materials from unsustainable sources.
Seven other companies under the Green Label have yet to reply, said SEC, which also urged other paper companies to participate in the labelling scheme to verify that their products are sustainable.
In the same statement, CASE emphasised that “the strongest voice is still the consumer”, and urged the public not to support irresponsible companies.
On Wednesday, SEC announced a temporary restriction on APP’s green label certification, while supermarket chain NTUC Fairprice said it has withdrawn the company’s paper products from its shelves.
Seah Kian Peng, NTUC Fairprice’s chief executive, said that the decision is a result of the temporary restriction of APP’s Green Label certification.
“This reflects our conviction and commitment towards promoting and adopting sustainable practices, as we have done all these years,” he added.
APP’s managing director for sustainability Aida Greenbury said on Wednesday that the firm is one of the few companies to publicly share its supplier list and concession maps. If a firm is found to be setting the fires, it will be terminated, she said, but “thus far no supplier has been proven to be involved.”
“Inevitably with transparency comes scrutiny, and it opens us up to more investigation”, said Greenbury. APP welcomes this, and continues to fight fires, she added. “We understand the urgency but accuracy is just as important”.
4. Protecting citizens
Singapore’s Health Ministry on 15 September activated the Haze Subsidy Scheme, which extends affordable treatment for haze-related conditions to children, elderly, and low-income Singaporeans.
Eligible individuals visiting clinics with ailments such as asthma and conjunctivitis would not have to pay more than $$10 for treatment, and in some cases, receive care for free.
The People’s Association also declared that 108 community centres and clubs island-wide will stay open till midnight every day to offer respite to residents with no air-conditioning at home. Nearly 60,000 protective masks were also distributed to residents on September 25.
Jolovan Wham, executive director of migrant rights group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, has also urged the Ministry of Manpower “to consider calling for a stop-work order for non-essential services when air quality readings hit very unhealthy and hazardous levels”.
The ministry noted that ensuring that businesses operated safely “is a more sustainable and balanced approach” as risk levels differ according to location, nature of the work, and employee health. It added that it will address any haze-related complaints it receives.
5. Neighbourly love
A group of Singaporeans led by local group Relief.sg and volunteer outfit Let’s Help Kalimantan travelled to Kalimantan, Indonesia - where PSI levels hit 1,995 in recent weeks - to distribute protective N95 masks to local villagers. Landing in the province on Sunday, they distributed more than 25,000 masks.
The masks were collected through public donations, and distributed with the help of environmental activists on the ground. “This is not a long term solution and perhaps, it will not be sustainable,” said the group online. “But that does not mean that we want to sit and watch innocent people suffering.”