Haze returns to Southeast Asia

Indonesia's forests are burning again, causing the air pollution index in countries like Singapore to rise to unhealthy levels.

Haze in Orchard Road Singapore
Orchard Road in Singapore during the record 2015 Southeast Asian haze. By Nick-D - Own work via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Singaporeans got a nasty reminder last Friday that the haze caused by forest fires in Indonesia, which is becoming an annual occurrence, may be making a comeback soon.

Last Friday afternoon, the 24-hour Pollution Standards Index (PSI), a measure of air quality, rose to 105. A level above 100 is considered to be ‘unhealthy’.

In response to the burning in Indonesia, the country’s newly-appointed police chief Tito Karnavian said last Thursday that police had prepared cases against 454 individuals linked to the fires. “Just in Riau, 85 people have been arrested,” he said.

Air pollution in Malaysia remained at normal levels on Friday. But on 23 August, Malaysian environment minister Wan Junaidi reported that the effects of the haze have already been seen in Peninsular Malaysia as well as some areas in Sarawak following fires in West Kalimantan province, on Indonesia’s part of Borneo island.

Over the weekend and on Monday, the PSI readings in Singapore dropped back to a normal range but the reprieve may only be temporary as the better air quality may be due to a change in wind direction and rain showers.

Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) spokesman Sutopo Nugroho said in a statement last Friday that forest and land fires in the Riau area are increasing, referring to aerial surveillance of 67 hotspots and smoke from the area drifting eastward over Singapore.

Sixty-three residents and 13 families have been relocated to a shelter in Jambi province because of acrid smoke, a spokesman for a social agency on the ground reported.

Yio Chu Kang resident Chris Seow, 59, told Eco-Business yesterday: “We’re not experiencing anything near critical levels as of now, maybe in the days to come I would be speaking to you with an N95 mask on.”

Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) is watching PSI levels as the burning season in Indonesia gets underway and is expected to intensify in the coming months.

Now is the time for government to answer this challenge. It is in the law.

Yuyun Indradi, Greenpeace Indonesia

Despite Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s directive to escalate efforts to monitor forest fire hotspots and arrest culpable parties, Indonesian authorities have been criticised for failing to prevent the annual fires, which send millions of people in the country and its Southeast Asian neighbours under the threat of haze.

While environment watchdogs note the increase in burning-related arrests, they still doubt that authorities are applying the full extent of the law after Riau police dropped charges against 15 companies last month due to a lack of evidence.

The 15 had earlier been listed by Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry as being linked to last year’s fires that caused record-breaking pollution levels.

A forest campaigner for the environmental group Greenpeace Indonesia, Yuyun Indradi, said the government was struggling to enforce laws to prevent the drainage of peatland for plantations and the setting of fires to clear land. “It has become a challenge for the government to enforce accountability among concession holders, to enforce its directives on blocking canals, and push companies to take part in efforts to restore peatland and prevent fires,” Indradi said. “Now is the time for the government to answer this challenge. It is in the law.”

Read More : http://www.nst.com.my/news/2016/08/168523/smoke-indonesian-fires-hits-unhealthy-level-singapore

Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner Yuyun Indradi said that the government was struggling to enforce laws to prevent the drainage of peatland for plantations and the setting of fires to clear land.

“Now is the time for government to answer this challenge. It is in the law,” Indradi said in an interview with Reuters.

People living in neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia seemed to have come to accept that they would need to wear a mask or suspend normal outdoor activities during this time of the year due to the air pollution. 

“Most of Indonesia’s neighbours are resigned to it,” Seow said. “There’s been talk about prosecuting errant companies (mostly big palm oil and paper companies) from Singapore since we have satellite photos of plantations but it’s tricky because Indonesia is the big brother in Southeast Asia.”

Singapore continues to pursue cases against six Indonesian companies believed to have cleared land by burning last year.

The island-state is pushing for the case under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act of 2014, which allows it to fine companies even outside the country up to S$100,000 for every day it is polluting Singapore’s air.

Indonesian environment and forestry minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar has rebuked this move, saying the country upholds its own laws and regulations. “We certainly don’t rely on data and information derived from other countries as the basis for our legal processes,” she said in an interview with foreshints.news in June this year.

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