Economic impact by haze may not be great: Ng Eng Hen

Woo Sian Boon Today Online 7 Jul 13;

SINGAPORE — While the Government has not yet “sat down” to discuss it, the haze “hasn’t had a great (economic) impact” as Singapore carried on with their lives, said Dr Ng Eng Hen, Chairman of the Haze Inter-ministerial task force, during an interview with the media on Friday.

In response to a question on whether the haze had significantly impacted Singapore’s economy, Dr Ng said that it has not been the Government’s priority to discover the economic impact of the haze as it was a “short” episode which occurred over two days and a weekend.

“I would say that the impact hasn’t been as large as compared to Sars, for example. Singaporeans basically got on with their lives, and I think we need to do that, not only for the economic impact, but because it shows our resilience,” he said.

The possibility that the haze might last for several weeks or more had led some economists to reportedly total up the possible damage to the Republic’s economy, as some suggested that any estimate of the haze’s cost should start at S$300 million a month.

Dr Ng reiterated on Friday the importance of going on normally — albeit with a slower pace — with daily lives to minimise impact on all levels, and not just on the economy.

He said: “If we continue as we are, I think we can minimise it and when I say economic impact, I don’t mean just dollars and cents. We talk about how our daily lives are affected — garbage collection, cleaning, our festivities that we like to attend, the social impact is actually very great as well.”

When asked if the Government will introduce new rulings for childcare centres or voluntary-welfare organisations to be fully air-conditioned, Dr Ng said that “it may not be sensible” to be “a completely air-conditioned nation”.

While he acknowledged that the haze has shaped Singapore’s behaviour, using an example of how the Ministry of Social and Family Development had rolled out a S$2.5 million fund to help childcare centres and kindergartens purchase air-conditioners or retrofit their centres, Dr Ng said that “major responses” should not be made.

Pointing out that the gap between this year’s major haze situation and the one which occurred in 1997, Dr Ng said: “(We are) dependent on wind and rain, we’ll just have to examine it ... We shouldn’t make major responses. Let’s study it.” WOO SIAN BOON

Better haze early warning system being “looked into”: Dr Ng
Better early warning system against haze lined up; agencies to sharpen contingency plans
Woo Sian Boon Today Online 7 Jul 13;

SINGAPORE — A better early warning system to predict if and when the haze will hit Singapore is currently being “looked into” by the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), with the Minister coordinating the country’s efforts pledging that government agencies will continue sharpening their contingency plans should the haze return.

Speaking to the media during an interview on Friday, Dr Ng Eng Hen, who is Chairman of the Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee, outlined several key lessons the authorities had gleaned from the haze episode — which hit hazardous levels two weeks ago — while stressing that the various ministries remain prepared to activate their plans if necessary.

While he pointed out that the National Environment Agency (NEA) had started issuing daily health advisories, and rolling 24-hr PSI readings as part of a “predictive system” to help Singaporeans better plan their activities during the haze period, Dr Ng said that “a better early warning system for haze” is needed as “we don’t really want to be caught by surprise”.

He said: “If we can have a better model ... At least we can tell Singaporeans, within a certain level of confidence that, ‘The hotspots are burning, the haze is headed this way, if the winds don’t change, it’ll hit us in ‘X’ number of hours, please be prepared’. It’s a simple statement that we can put out and it’ll be very useful.”

As such, MEWR and the NEA, with a team of health and weather experts, is currently looking into a system with a “more scientifically-based rigorous method”, which is based on the hotspots in Indonesia, weather patterns and historical data, to “better predict” if Singapore is “at risk of haze”.

When asked to elaborate when and how this early warning system will be rolled out, Dr Ng, who is also Defence Minister, did not indicate a timeline but revealed that better technology — such as satellite monitoring — is an advantage which can be leveraged on to do data “modelling”. Dr Ng, however, added that information from Indonesia on climate is necessary for a better predictive model.

He said: “We certainly want to ask them for better information on wind, rain so that we can predict better. The (ASEAN) agreement on transboundary haze actually operationalises that because there’s a clause that says more effective monitoring on hotspots as well as climatic conditions, so it’ll be very useful if that can be ratified.”

A better system is necessary as Dr Ng stressed that the haze is a “long-term problem” which can be expected to recur over the next few years. This is due to the scale of the area being set on fire as well as slashing and burning being the predominant method of forest-clearing in Indonesia.

Said Dr Ng: “Slashing and burning is the predominant method in Sumatra and other areas and has been practiced for decades, it isn’t a recent phenomenon ... I suspect that this practice will be hard to eradicate and change overnight.”

To “address the problem at its source”, Dr Ng said that a multi-pronged approach consisting of governmental diplomatic efforts, non-governmental organisations to encourage more sustainable practices on the ground and “avenues where consumers can help” is necessary.

When asked if Singapore is prepared if the haze returns and reaches hazardous levels, Dr Ng said he felt that Singaporeans are better prepared, while reiterating that the authorities’ main goal is to minimise disruption and ensure that life will go on as normally as possible.

In response to why there was a delay in the authorities’ announcement of their contingency plans, Dr Ng reiterated that the plans were in place but had to be customised to the specific “threat” Singapore might be dealing with.

He explained; “These contingency plans are generic in the sense that they respond to the haze, flu pandemic or terrorist threats ... But they have to be customised to the specific threat. It’s the haze now, couple of weeks hence, we might be hit by something else, and then we have to adapt.”

He also added that the haze crisis gave various agencies the opportunity to “validate their plans” and make sure that “they knew how to operationalise it”.

Dr Ng also said that the authorities’ responses and operation plans “have improved a lot over the years” from experience dealing with the Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) or the H1N1 influenza infection.

He said: “We can never stop improving because if we’re slow, lives can be affected, but comparing across just this decade or so, I would say that our systems are much more structured in the way that we know which levels and things to activate.”

Singapore 'has learnt 5 key lessons from haze crisis'
Ng Eng Hen says the authorities will continue to monitor situation, fine-tune contingency plans
Feng Zengkun, Environment Correspondent Straits Times 7 Jul 13;

Singapore will be even better prepared for the haze if it returns with a vengeance, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, pointing to five key lessons learnt from the latest episode.

At a press conference last Friday to assess the recent haze crisis, he added that the authorities will continue to monitor the situation and fine-tune contingency plans.

Dr Ng, who heads an inter-ministerial committee to tackle the haze problem, said: "I think we are better prepared, both our people and agencies. If the haze does return we are confident that Singaporeans will take it in our stride."

Last month, the annual haze in Singapore worsened to unprecedented levels, with the three-hourly Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hitting a record 401 on June 21.

Air becomes hazardous when the index crosses 300.

Fires in Indonesia had led to the pollution here, before rain, fire-fighting efforts and winds gave Singapore a respite.

During a community event at Pasir Ris Elias Community Club yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean also spoke about the recent crisis, saying episodes such as the haze were "a timely reminder of the importance of being prepared in different emergency situations".

Haze is a long-term issue

Dr Ng said the first thing Singaporeans need to realise is that the haze is a long-term problem.

Reports showed that both small farmers and large corporations in Indonesia are still burning forests to clear the land for crops.

"Our records on haze go as far back as the 1970s, and I suspect this slash-and-burn practice will be hard to eradicate and change overnight. This is an area where we need a multi-pronged approach," said Dr Ng, adding that Singapore must keep up diplomatic efforts with Indonesia.

Last week, Indonesia began preparations to ratify an Asean agreement on transboundary haze after meetings with Singapore and other Asean members.

The Republic also needs to enlist non-government groups to help spread environmentally friendly land-clearing practices in Indonesia, for example, mechanical methods such as using bull-dozers.

Better early warning system

At home, Dr Ng has called for a better early warning system for haze.

PSI readings, he pointed out, show what the air quality was like in the past hours or days, not what it would be in the near future. But a predictive model will help Singaporeans plan ahead.

The Government responded with health advisories for the next day, but he wants more to be done. He said the Environment Ministry is already looking at a better model to predict haze conditions. "I think it will help us all," Dr Ng said.

Information management is key

But how the information is presented to the public is also key.

While some preferred simple guidelines on how to react to the haze in the recent crisis, others expected detailed information.

"I agree that we can improve on this," said Dr Ng, explaining that the Government recognises the need to cater to different groups.

Asked why the relevant ministries' contingency plans were announced only almost a week after the haze hit record levels, given that the haze was a perennial problem, he stressed that the plans were in place but had to be "customised" for the specific crisis.

"These contingency plans are generic in the sense that they respond to say, the haze, flu pandemics, terrorist threats. Each time we have an emergency or crisis, they are updated."

The Singapore System is robust

Despite the challenges, Singapore was able to respond quicker this time, thanks to its experience in handling major events such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003.

Dr Ng pointed out that the Government had distributed millions of face masks to homes and retailers within days. "Obviously there is room for improvement each time something happens, but we know our plans and structures are functioning as intended."

The authorities also rolled out other measures immediately, including subsidised medical treatment for haze-related conditions.

It also set up a fund to help childcare centres install air-conditioning to guard against the haze.

Singaporeans are resilient

But it was not just the Government which responded. Dr Ng lauded the initiatives taken by Singaporeans in helping one another fight the haze.

Not only did people get together to source and distribute masks, some even opened their air-conditioned homes so that others could take refuge from the haze, Dr Ng pointed out.

"That tells us the level of trust and care we have for one another," he said. "This is a good sign for nation-building. And I think if Singaporeans continue to respond this way it adds to our resilience."

Dr Ng said Singapore depended on Indonesia to solve the haze problem at its source.

"But if we take sensible precautions, look after ourselves and each other, the haze won't disrupt our lives. If the haze returns, I'm confident that Singaporeans will take it in (their) stride."


The health risks posed by the haze

We would like to tell Singaporeans, "You know what your health risks are when you are exposed to so many hours (of haze)"... But the data, unfortunately, is not that precise... Experts tell us that when conditions worsen, please stay indoors... that is the best they can do.

I think what people are doing - staying indoors, closing the doors, (using) fans, some using air purifiers - is the best that we can do on current evidence. Until somebody comes up with better studies to show that the risks actually are much more or much less, then we can calibrate it.

Why it took a while for the Government to announce its haze contingency plans

The plans were in place but we have to customise them to a specific threat. The fact that the haze went into unhealthy levels and we were able to activate masks, within a day or two, was a fairly quick response... This is in no way saying that we are satisfied with the response; we can always sharpen it... The fact that well over 80 per cent of Singaporeans polled said that Singapore would get through the haze, I think it's a measure of confidence in our system.

Whether Singapore can withstand a bigger crisis

I, personally, am gratified by the way Singaporeans have responded. There was a certain robustness in the systems, and more important than that, the way Singaporeans reached out to help one another.... it tells us the level of trust and care that we have for one another, which is essential in any crisis.

You can have the best-laid plans but if you don't have trust and care for one another, then you know it's each man for himself. So as long as we have that, I am confident that we can keep updating, keep strengthening...

Lessons learnt from recent haze episode
Saifulbahri Ismail Channel NewsAsia 7 Jul 13;

SINGAPORE: The Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee said the haze issue is a long term problem which Singapore and the region will have to face.

The Committee, which was activated when haze levels hit record highs in Singapore last month, believes the slash and burn method to clear forests in Indonesia is entrenched and hard to eradicate.

Recently, the Indonesian government has put in more efforts to reduce significantly the number of hotspots in the Riau province.

If the haze does return, the committee said it is confident that Singaporeans will take it in their stride as Singapore is better prepared as a result of lessons learnt during the recent haze episode.

After about two weeks of clear skies, the Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee headed by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen shared lessons learnt from the recent haze episode.

Dr Ng said: "The first key lesson I feel we ought to learn despite all these developments which are positive in the recent weeks, is that the haze is a long term problem. Slash and burn is the predominant method in Sumatra and in other areas and have been practiced for decades. It isn't a recent phenomenon. Our records of haze go back as far back as 1970s and I suspect that this practice will be hard to eradicate and changed overnight."

Dr Ng believes a multi-prong approach is needed to deal with the problem.

This includes keeping up diplomatic efforts with the Indonesian government and getting help from non-governmental agencies to facilitate more sustainable practices.

In addition, a more robust early warning system will be useful to help Singaporeans prepare better for the haze and help them plan ahead.

Dr Ng said: "MEWR (Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources) is actually looking at the health experts and the weather experts, to come up with a better predictive model to look at the hotspots, weather patterns, historical data and correlate with actual haze conditions. I think all of us can recognise how difficult it is to predict weather. If we can have a better model, a model where we can trust or a more reliable model, I think it will help us all."

Singapore will continue to ask Indonesia for more information on wind and rain conditions to better predict the weather.

Another lesson learnt is about information management.

Information needs to be given out catering to different groups of people, and not to create fear or even panic.

The Committee is also determined not to let the haze overwhelm the nation.

Dr Ng said: "The key message then was that even if the haze worsens, turns hazardous, just slow down don't stop. Let's keep Singapore going. Don't allow the haze to overwhelm us. Let’s try to get on with our lives as much as possible because that's the way that we manifest our resilience and our ability to overcome."

When haze levels hit record highs, the immediate action taken was to restore confidence.

Masks were distributed to the poor and vulnerable.

"It was a good occasion for our contingency plans to be validated and I think we were able to respond much faster this time because of our experiences in the past decades - SARS, H5N1, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Each time that happened, we stepped up and just examined. The fact that the haze required us to activate plans gives us confidence that the so-called Singapore system works," said Dr Ng.

Even though the haze may have subsided for now, Dr Ng said government agencies will continue to sharpen its contingency plans and apply the lessons learnt. The Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee will also remain watchful during the dry season if the haze returns.

Thirty haze-related questions are expected to be fielded in Parliament during question time on July 8. They will cover legislation, health impact, contingency plans and safety of workers.