Singapore faces threat of early, prolonged haze

SINGAPORE — The Republic is facing an early, and prolonged, bout of haze, with Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and a pulp and paper giant both warning of an increase in burning in Indonesia.

In a strongly-worded Facebook post last night, Dr Balakrishnan said: “Again. Hot spots increasing dramatically in Sumatra, with 458 visible today. Haze may worsen when the winds weaken next week. Some rain expected, but not enough to douse the fires.

“We will try to encourage them to take action — but we all know the welfare of close neighbours is not their priority. Hard truths of regional politics,” he added.

The minister’s comments came on the same day Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL), which has extensive plantations and operations in the Riau province of Sumatra in Indonesia, warned of a prolonged haze season, citing the early start of burning season. The company, Asia’s second-largest pulp and paper maker, reported 55 fires near its plantations in the first five weeks of this year.

According to the National Environment Agency (NEA) website, there were 458 hotspots detected yesterday, with more than half (246) of these in the Riau province. This was more than double the 187 detected on Monday.

Although the likelihood of transboundary haze affecting Singapore this week remains low because prevailing northeasterly winds are expected to remain for these two weeks, NEA said Singapore may experience “occasional slight haze due to the accumulation of particulate matter under stable atmospheric conditions”.

As at 9pm yesterday, Singapore’s three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading was 38 — within the “good” air quality range.

Yesterday, APRIL said that with Sumatra seeing little rain since last month, burning — the cheapest way to clear land for agriculture — has started early this year.

Its head of Technical Services in Riau MP Periasamy said: “All it takes is five days (without) rain for the land to dry out and the temptation rises in the community to set fires.”

The dry season in Indonesia typically lasts from June to October, but dry weather has been forecast until mid-March. More than 320 hectares of forests near APRIL’s plantations have been burnt and 15 hectares of its plantations have been damaged by fires that spread from neighbouring forests, said the Singapore-headquartered company, which has 350,000 hectares of concessions in Riau.

APRIL, which dispatches crews to each location identified from space as a hot spot, said only a small number of hot spots detected from daily satellite images are actual fires. However, the current fire danger is at its highest level in nearly 70 per cent of its plantations, and the company has placed its firefighting management staff on 24-hour standby.

Singapore experienced its worst bout of haze in June last year, with the PSI hitting a record high of 401 at one point.

The Haze Monitoring System for five countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including Singapore and Indonesia, has made little headway since its adoption at last October’s ASEAN Summit.

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam noted “a lack of movement” on the system last month at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Bagan, Myanmar.

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