Singapore shrouded in smog as haze returns to SE Asia

AFP AsiaOne 26 Aug 16;

SINGAPORE - Acrid smog blanketed Singapore Friday as the city-state was hit by the year's first major outbreak of haze, an annual crisis sparked by forest fires in neighbouring Indonesia.

Singapore's air quality index reached unhealthy levels with conditions deteriorating through the day, marking the worst return of the haze to the city since vast parts of Southeast Asia were affected in 2015.

Last year's haze outbreak was among the worst in memory, shrouding Malaysia, Singapore, and parts of Thailand in acrid smoke.

The blazes are started illegally to clear land, typically for palm oil and pulpwood plantations, and Indonesia has faced intense criticism from its neighbours over its failure to halt the annual smog outbreaks.

Singapore's National Environment Agency said the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) was at 165 as of 0400 GMT on Friday. The reading for the 24-hour period, however, was on the higher band of the moderate range.

PSI levels above 100 are deemed unhealthy and people are advised to reduce vigorous outdoor activity.

A cloud of greyish smoke swept across the island, accompanied by a strong smell of burning foliage.

Visibility from high-rise offices and other vantage points was virtually zero. An AFP photographer said he could hardly see the skyline from one of the city's highest points at Mount Faber.

Smog was also visible in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of neighbouring Malaysia, over a few days last week but did not breach unhealthy levels.

An area in the Malaysian state of Perak had briefly tipped over to the unhealthy range for a few hours last week, according to local media.

Singapore last September closed schools and distributed protective face masks as the air pollution index soared to hazardous levels following three weeks of being cloaked in smoke from Indonesia's nearby Sumatra island.

Indonesia's Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency said on its website that the number of "hotspots" on Sumatra - which sits across the Malacca Strait from Singapore - had increased in the past 48 hours.

A hotspot is an area of intense heat detected by satellites, indicating a blaze has already broken out or that an area is very hot and likely to go up in flames soon.

As of midnight local time on Thursday, there were 68 hotspots on Sumatra, up from 43 two days earlier, the agency said.

In the Indonesian part of Borneo island - another area where large numbers of smog-belching fires occur every year - there were 31 hotspots as of midnight Thursday local time, it added.

However there were far fewer fires than at the peak of last year's crisis, when hundreds burned out of control.

Three provinces on Sumatra and three on Indonesian Borneo have in recent months officially declared they are on alert owing to the growing threat from forest fires.

The Indonesian disaster agency is currently using eight water-bombing helicopters, two water-bombing planes, and two cloud-seeding planes to combat the fires, according to agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

Smoke from Indonesian fires hits "unhealthy" level in Singapore
Marius Zaharia and Fergus Jensen Reuters 26 Aug 16;

SINGAPORE/JAKARTA, Aug 26 (Reuters) - Air pollution in Singapore rose to the "unhealthy" level on Friday as acrid smoke drifted over the island from fires on Indonesia's Sumatra island, the National Environment Agency (NEA) said.

Every dry season, smoke from fires set to clear land for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations in Indonesia clouds the skies over much of the region, raising concern about public health and worrying tourist operators and airlines.

The 24-hour Pollution Standards Index (PSI), which Singapore's NEA uses as a benchmark, rose as high as 105 in the afternoon. A level above 100 is considered "unhealthy".

The NEA said it planned a "daily haze advisory" as "a burning smell and slight haze were experienced over many areas" in Singapore.

Indonesia has been criticised by its northern neighbours and green groups for failing to end the annual fires, which were estimated to cost Southeast Asia's largest economy $16 billion in 2015, and left more than half a million Indonesians suffering from respiratory ailments.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has increased government efforts to tackle the haze, with police doubling numbers of fire-related arrests this year.

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

"The smoke billowing from the hotspot locations is quite dense," Nugroho said, adding that 7,200 personnel and several aircraft had been deployed to stop the Riau fires.

Pollution levels in neighbouring Malaysia were normal on Friday.

Singapore has pushed Indonesia for information on companies suspected of causing pollution, some of which are listed on Singapore's stock exchange.

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."

Greenpeace said, according to its satellite information, there were 138 fires across Indonesia on Friday. (Reporting by Marius Zaharia and Fathin Ungku in SINGAPORE and Fergus Jensen in JAKARTA; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

The haze is back across South East Asia
BBC 27 Aug 16;

The haze is back across areas of South East Asia.

The air pollution is caused by the burning of forests and peat land in Indonesia so it can be used for growing crops, mostly lucrative palm oil.

An annual feature of life in Indonesia's neighbouring countries, it has been blamed for deaths and illness.

Indonesia, which has declared a state of emergency in six provinces, has repeatedly said it is cracking down on the slash-and-burn activities.

But the issue is a constant source of diplomatic tension, with Jakarta accused by Singapore and Malaysia of not doing enough to tackle it.

Living in the haze: Anna Jones, BBC News, Singapore

A mild smoky smell has been in the air here for a few days, but throughout Friday, the view from our office window grew worse and worse.

Air pollution is officially measured in Singapore Pollutant Standards Index (PSI). Anything over 100 is considered unhealthy. Though the 24-hour average so far on Friday was only slightly over that, the three-hour reading at 14:00 local time was 215.

You can smell it inside buildings, it lingers in your hair and clothes and it makes your eyes itch.

There will no doubt be people cancelling their outdoor plans for the weekend and stocking up on face masks, but there's a way to go before Singapore hits the peak of last year's haze, one of the worst ever.

At times back then, the PSI reading was above 300. You could barely see the other side of the road and venturing out without a face mask was almost unthinkable.

What causes the haze?

Every year Indonesia sees agricultural fires across Sumatra, and in parts of Kalimantan on Borneo island. About 100 "hotspots" were detected on Friday.

The fires are said to be caused by corporations as well as small-scale farmers using slash-and-burn to clear vegetation for palm oil, pulp and paper plantations.

Once lit, the fires often spin out of control and spread into protected forested areas and peat. A peat fire is difficult to put out as it can burn underground for months, and requires a lot of water to extinguish.
How big a deal is it

At its largest the annual haze measures hundreds of kilometres across. It spreads to Malaysia, Singapore, the south of Thailand and the Philippines, causing a significant deterioration in air quality.

In slash-and-burn areas like Kalimantan, the haze can create atrocious living conditions for several months of the year

The problem has accelerated in recent years as more land has been cleared for expanding plantations for the lucrative palm oil trade.

What is Indonesia doing?

Indonesia says it has arrested 450 people so far this year in connection with fires, including some linked to companies.

President Joko Widodo has ordered extra resourcing for monitoring and fire-fighting efforts, but told the BBC last year it would take at least three years for the results to be seen.

Is it dangerous?

Besides irritating the respiratory tract and the eyes, the pollutants can cause serious long-term damage to health.

The indices used to measure air quality in the region usually measure particulate matter (PM10), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone.
PM2.5 can enter deeper into the lungs. It has been associated with causing respiratory illnesses and lung damage.
As much as Singapore complains about poor air quality, in parts of Indonesia the haze can last for months and be deadly.

Singapore’s Air Quality Plummets as Haze Returns
Air pollution in the city-state reaches ‘very unhealthy’ level
P.R. VENKAT and JAKE MAXWELL WATTS Wall Street Journal 26 Aug 16;

SINGAPORE—Air pollution in Singapore reached very unhealthy levels Friday as haze engulfed most parts of the city, an indication that renewed cross-border efforts to combat forest fires in Indonesia are showing scant signs of success.

The hazy conditions—an annual irritant for residents of Indonesia’s northern neighbors—have tested relations between Singapore and Indonesia and prompted lawmakers in both countries to take measures to combat a problem that in recent years has caused billions of dollars in damage.

Singapore’s National Environment Agency said that at 2 p.m. local time on Friday, the pollutant standards index, or PSI, was 215 and had been climbing fast all morning. The NEA classifies any level between 201 and 300 as “very unhealthy” and advises residents to avoid prolonged or strenuous outdoor physical exercise. As of late morning Friday, offices and schools remained open in Singapore pending fresh guidance from the government.

Many in Singapore were flippant on social media, long used to the so-called haze season. Twitter user Ben Koh posted an Instagram photo of the city with the caption “Singapore through a smoke filter.” Others, like Facebook user Vivien Tan Hui Ying, said they were worried about health concerns, such as skin irritation. “It’s going to be a torturous period again,” she said.

The smoky conditions, which give off a bitter taste and sharp smell, are the result of forest fires in Indonesia, where farmers illegally burn areas of land to make way for lucrative crops of trees for palm oil, pulp and paper.

Jakarta has promised to take action against the illegal burning but has had trouble tackling the problem over a vast area of rural land, much of it hard to access. Indonesia’s parliament in 2014 voted to ratify a regional agreement on air pollution that would help coordinate action between nations to prevent the clearing of land using fire, after a particularly bad bout of haze in 2013 that caused PSI levels in Singapore to reach “hazardous” levels of more than 370.

Indonesia has moved more quickly this year to fight fires and has stepped up prevention efforts. As of Friday, six provinces had been put on emergency alert. The country’s disaster management agency had deployed eight helicopters and two aircraft to conduct water-bombing activities in those areas and had two airplanes doing cloud seeding to artificially generate rain, said spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho. A total of 7,200 land and air personnel have been deployed to fight the blazes, he said.

Mr. Nugroho said Friday that Riau province in Sumatra recorded 67 hot spots, an indication of fire. The number of hot spots has reached into the hundreds, though that is down significantly from last year, when noxious haze spread across the region. On Thursday, Indonesian police announced they had arrested more than 450 suspects in connection with forest fires this year, nearly double the number from 2015. People linked to nine companies had also been arrested in connection with fires between January and August, said criminal investigative police chief Ari Dono Sukmanto. He didn’t mention the names of the companies.

Singapore, meanwhile, is also taking a harder stance. Two years ago it passed a law to allow regulators to prosecute local and foreign companies involved in illegal forest burning, with fines of up to 2 million Singapore dollars (US$1.5 million).

Last year, several Singapore companies boycotted products from Indonesian companies that contributed to haze, an indication of intense public frustration in the typically squeaky clean city-state. Singapore’s largest supermarket chains, including NTUC FairPrice and Sheng Siong Group Ltd. pulled from their shelves products such as Nice and Paseo toilet paper and tissue sourced from Indonesian company Asia Pulp & Paper Group, one of the world’s largest paper and pulp producers. The company said in response that it has zero-burn policy on its land and was working with authorities to put of the fires.

Yet the fresh crackdown in both Singapore and Indonesia hasn’t been able to prevent the haze from recurring. Last year, fires in Indonesia consumed a roughly 6.2 million acre swath of land, releasing around 1.75 billion tons of greenhouse gases and setting Indonesia up as one of the world’s worst polluters that year. It exposed tens of millions of people to toxic haze and prompted flight cancellations in Thailand and health warnings in the Philippines and Singapore.

—Sara Schonhardt and Anita Rachman contributed to this article.

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