Haze, dengue, floods are issues of future environmental challenges

Channel NewsAsia 28 Dec 13;

SINGAPORE: This year's record high PSI levels during the haze, the dengue epidemic and more intense rains are "amber lights", or early warning signs, of the need to be better prepared for future environmental challenges.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, said this in an interview with Channel NewsAsia.

His ministry plans to get tough on transboundary haze by taking to task, companies which contribute to the haze.

Planned measures include the tabling of an Act to hold directors of such companies accountable for the damage caused and the health impact on millions of people in the region.

At the height of the haze crisis in June this year, the PSI level hit a record high of 400.

The crisis prompted leaders of the region to push for more effective measures of haze management.

These include the sharing of concession maps among governments, which indicate where the fires occur, and on which companies' land.

Leaders also urged Indonesia to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze. The Agreement came into effect in 2002, when 10 ASEAN nations, including Singapore signed it. Indonesia is the last to sign, but it is expected to ratify the Agreement in early 2014.

Singapore's Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources is going beyond just monitoring, by taking action against those responsible for the fires.

Dr Balakrishnan said: "Early next year, I'll be going to Parliament to introduce a new Act specifically targeting trans-boundary haze. We will make it a criminal offence. We will hold the companies as well as directors liable for the damage they cause to us, as well as the deleterious health impact on our population. We're about to finalise the drafting, I will present it to the public. We will take the views of the public, adjust it if necessary. I hope to pass this bill sometime within the first half of next year.

"Again, the intention is to send a signal to companies. We are going to hold them accountable and we know who is responsible for causing these problems to literally millions of Singaporeans and Indonesians."

Dr Balakrishnan said his ministry will also collaborate with non-government organisations to highlight the problem within the local and international sphere.

He said the key objective is to ultimately create an awareness among consumers of palm oil, to understand which companies are producing palm oil sustainably and responsibly, and which ones are doing so through indiscriminate burning.

Another concern for Singaporeans is the rising number of dengue cases, which broke the 10,000 cases mark in June.

As of December 27, the number of dengue cases had exceeded 22,000, with seven reported deaths.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) has stepped up checks in homes and public places, with about four million checks conducted as of November.

Grassroots leaders were also mobilised to raise awareness among residents.

Dengue inspectors found 18,000 breeding sites. Most of these were in homes, but breeding in construction sites took centre stage when news of a dengue cluster in Orchard Road broke sometime in October.

Dr Balakrishnan said the NEA inspects about 100 construction sites a week, and finds breeding occurring in between eight and 10 per cent of them.

He said the NEA has been issuing more stop-work orders to construction companies. The ministry is also considering raising penalties for construction sites found to have recurring breeding of mosquitoes.

Dr Balakrishnan said: "Whilst I would say It's too early to say that the epidemic is over, I think the worst is over. We are now down to about 350 cases... thereabouts. I think the number will stay around there.

"We will continue to pour in more resources, continue to do more inspections, continue to mobilise Singaporeans and gradually bring the number down. But this remains an ever-present threat to us. Our immunity as a whole is low and this virus has very high epidemic potential."

The year 2013 has also been significant on the climate change front.

In Singapore, intense rainfall over short periods of time continued to cause flash floods in many areas, and experts have warned of more such weather patterns in the future.

The current monsoon season alone could see an average increase of about 20 per cent in total rainfall.

While the national water agency PUB has already embarked on a series of projects to improve and upgrade drainage, observers said there is still room to include a wider section of society to play a part in mitigating floods.

The PUB has implemented new rules, including a requirement for on-site storm water management strategies such as detention tanks or green roofs, for building projects over a certain land size.

Experts suggest incentivising developers, architects and engineers who have come up with creative flood management methods.

Dr Chew Soon Hoe, council member of the Institution of Engineers, said: "One practical incentive measure to encourage developers to put into consideration in reducing run-off is by either lower development fee or costs or increase their usable plot ratio. All these can be translated into monetary gains at a later stage. This is one tangible incentive among other intangible incentives."

Dr Balakrishnan said a review of the Sustainable Singapore blueprint will begin in 2014, and will involve public consultation.

The blueprint maps out the country's strategy for economic growth in an environmentally-sustainable way.

The review will also incorporate NEA's Volunteer Corp Scheme, where members of the public are trained and issued with warrant cards to book and issue littering summonses to offenders on the spot.

Dr Balakrishnan said: "I want this to go through the proper process of public consultation. What type of people should be eligible to have a warrant card, what kind of training is necessary? How should they be deployed, where should they be deployed? Instead of working with individuals, work with NGOs, work with organised groups. The real objective is not enforcement. It's public ownership and peer pressure."

- CNA/de

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