Best of our wild blogs: 30 Jun 13

deadfish @ northwestern Singapore coast off SBWR & LCK - 29Jun2013 from sgbeachbum

Butterfly of the Month - June 2013
from Butterflies of Singapore

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Indonesia: Jakarta says hot spot situation 'more under control'

Indonesia pledges to continue haze-fighting efforts even as it seeks neighbours' patience
Leonard Lim Esther Teo In Bandar Seri Begawan
Straits Times 30 Jun 13;

Indonesia's haze-fighting efforts have borne fruit, with the number of hot spots down from a high of 265 to seven last Friday, and the size of the affected area a quarter of what it was, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said yesterday.

The situation is becoming "more under control", he told reporters after meeting his Singapore and Malaysian counterparts. He said that was due to efforts in cloud-seeding and water-bombing the burning areas, and propitious weather.

"We must continue these efforts... this is a commitment by the Indonesian government to ensure that we address this problem in a comprehensive way," he said.

Some 2,800 military personnel and 3,000 civilians, along with helicopters and other aircraft, are involved in the effort.

Singapore's Mr K. Shanmugam initiated the one-hour informal meeting in Brunei so that the ministers of the three most affected countries could come to some solution before today's Asean Ministerial Meeting (AMM). He termed the reduction in hot spots "substantial".

Earlier yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in a Facebook post that the number of hot spots had fallen steadily over the last few days. "This is good news! I hope the situation continues to improve over the next few weeks," PM Lee added.

The Pollutant Standards Index in Singapore has hovered within the good to moderate range in the past few days, after soaring to hazardous levels a fortnight ago.

With the area affected down from a high of 16,500ha to 4,081ha, Dr Marty issued a plea for patience, highlighting how it was not typical forest fires that were causing the haze but peatland, where fires are below the surface.

"So while you may not have actual trees burning, the smoke is still coming from... underground. So it is a bit more complicated than what you would imagine it to be, and the fire-fighting capacities are working day in and day out."

Dr Marty and Mr Shanmugam, who met Malaysia's Mr Anifah Aman in a hotel lounge without aides present, both called the session constructive and positive.

The trio also discussed ways to prevent a recurrence of the haze and how to mitigate it. Ideas will be presented to the rest of Asean's foreign ministers at today's AMM.

Mr Shanmugam said he expects a "good statement" on how Asean hopes to deal with the haze after today's meeting.

That is expected to be part of an Asean joint communique, a concluding statement traditionally issued after such meetings.

Singapore has also asked Indonesia to clarify whether Singapore- linked firms are involved in starting fires that caused the haze, after contradictory statements from officials there.

Dr Marty said investigations are ongoing and it was not appropriate to comment. Still, he said, 18 individuals had been arrested so far.

Indonesia is the only country in the region yet to ratify a 2002 Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Dr Marty said Jakarta was committed to doing so.

"But the most important thing (is)... we have actually been in full compliance and have essentially followed up on what is required in the agreement - sharing of information," he said.

He pointed to how an upcoming meeting of environment ministers in Malaysia, where the haze will be discussed, was an initiative of Indonesia's back in 2008.

"So, while focusing on ratification, we must also bear in mind the reality that we have also been essentially implementing the agreement irrespective."

Air clears in Malaysia as Indonesian fires die out
Straits Times 30 Jun 13;

Kuala Lumpur/Jakarta - Rains and a favourable wind have cleared Malaysia of the thick, choking haze that recently sent air pollution levels to hazardous levels.

The fires in Indonesia's Sumatra island, the main source of the haze pollution, have also died down.

Satellite imaging yesterday showed just seven hot spots in Sumatra, compared to a high of 437 on Monday.

However, peatland fires which burn underground are still smoking, and soldiers continue to work alongside firemen in Sumatra's Riau province.

Indonesia, which has been carrying out cloud seeding and water bombing to encourage rain, has also continued to track down the culprits behind the illegal fires.

Police in Riau have detained 18 suspects and are tracking down at least five more, according to the Indonesian news agency Antara.

In Malaysia, most of the areas being monitored for haze were registering moderate to good Air Pollution Index (API) readings.

The poorest API readings were in Kota Tinggi in Johor and Bukit Rambai in Malacca, according to the Department of Environment.

But even these readings - 81 in Kota Tinggi and 86 in Bukit Rambai at 5pm - are a vast improvement from the past week, when readings shot to as high as 746 in Muar, causing the government to temporarily declare emergency status in two districts in Johor.

Meanwhile, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which monitors and promotes sustainable farming of palm oil, has launched its own investigation after five of its members were named as possibly involved in causing the forest fires in Indonesia.

The result of its initial probe is expected to be out by the end of this week.

Illegal burning in Sumatra typically takes place during the dry season around June to September, to clear space for palm oil plantations.

But this year's fires were unusually widespread.

For Riau's farmers, livelihood trumps haze
It will take time to change attitudes on the ground
Joyce Lim Straits Times 30 Jun 13;

All a poor farmer needs is just a match to start a fire.

That fire could spread quickly across forest plantations, especially during the dry season.

Once the land has been cleared, the farmer can start planting crops, which he will later sell to feed himself and his family.

But try telling the farmer not to light up; or tell him to pay $2,000 for excavators to clear the land instead.

Or tell him to find other means to feed his family.

He is, in all likelihood, going to ignore you.

During a recent assignment to Riau - ground zero of the haze which blanketed much of the region - The Sunday Times team met many such farmers.

They are poor, unskilled and rely on farming to feed their families.

These farmers have, for generations, been burning land to clear it for the next planting season.

They live and breathe the haze, year after year.

When I tried to tell them about the hazardous levels of the Pollutant Standards Index, I sounded as alien to them as I looked in my N95 mask.

Many do not think they are doing anything wrong, or that their routine acts have contributed regularly to the thick haze enveloping the region.

Mr Suryanto, head of the Dumai Forestry Department, told The Sunday Times that it is an almost impossible task to try and stop these farmers from burning to clear the land.

As the head of the department, Mr Suryanto acknowledges that he has the authority to issue new regulations or to change existing ones, and empower the forestry police to carry out enforcement.

But it takes more than just changing regulations or stepping up enforcement to stop the burning, he explained. Killing off the haze is as good as killing the livelihoods of these farmers.

"These poor farmers will do anything it takes to protect their livelihoods," Mr Suryanto said.

"When you have nothing, you fight with your life to protect anything and everything that can feed you and your family."

Mr Suryanto even foresees blood being shed if the authorities try to take away the land from the farmers, or chase them away.

"These villagers will unite and fight the police. Even then, the burning will not stop. They will move to another area and start burning again," he said.

The Sunday Times team witnessed such collective kampung attitude when a group of villagers approached our car because the driver refused to pay a jobless villager who helped direct traffic on a road that was partially under construction.

The situation was diffused when the driver offered the man a few rupiah.

Shuttling between the provincial capital of Pekanbaru and hot spots in Dumai and the regencies of Bengkalis and Rokan Hilir in the last two weeks, the team saw plumes of smoke rising from charred plots of lands, every few kilometres we travelled.

Such instances of indiscriminate burning did not happen only in forested areas, but right in the heart of Pekanbaru, and are an indicator of just how commonplace slash-and-burn practices are in Indonesia.

Burning is still the cheapest way to clear land here. It takes just 10 litres of diesel - costing 50,000 rupiah (S$6.40) - to clear 1ha of land.

It goes some way towards explaining why few would move to spend about 15 million rupiah - or close to $2,000 - to hire workers and rent excavators to flatten and clear a plot of land of similar size.

Local farmer Mulia Manurung, 50, said that $2,000 is more than what he earns in a year.

Life is simple for the farmers here, who do not watch television or read the newspapers. So attempts to educate and inform them about the ills of slash-and-burn through the media would be largely ineffective.

Besides, reaching them also poses some challenges for the authorities as 90 per cent of Dumai is forested, and the vast geography makes it difficult to reach these farmers who live deep in the forest, said Mr Khairul Anwar, the mayor of Dumai.

Dumai is a coastal city closest to many of the hot spots in Riau province.

But farmers with smallholdings are just one part of the problem behind the annual outbreak of fires and haze in Indonesia.

Fingers have continued to be pointed at major pulp and palm oil companies which own plantations in Riau, and at least 14 companies are being investigated by the Indonesian authorities.

Most companies refute allegations that they are responsible and claim that they follow strict no-burning policies - and demand that their contractors do the same.

But activists say that when contractors further sub-contract the work to others, including some farmers, burning is often used to clear the land as it is the cheapest and fastest way to get the job done.

Observers, green activists and analysts also charge that corporations or local farmers with deep pockets take advantage of lax law enforcement and continue with the practice of burning to clear land.

The Sunday Times team in Riau spotted at least three such plantations in Dumai - one about 5,000ha in size.

This is despite Mayor Khairul saying that "there are no oil palm plantations in Dumai".

"If there are any," he added, "they are illegal."

Yet the owner of one such illegal plantation disclosed that he has been operating his 5,000ha plantation for the past five years.

A state of emergency was declared in Riau recently by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The initial efforts of the National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) to put out the fires in Riau province appeared lacklustre, with just three helicopters, a Casa aircraft and one Hercules C-130 used for cloud-seeding and water-bombing operations.

But the efforts, including increased deployment of personnel on the ground and stronger enforcement, picked up pace following the Indonesian leader's apology for the haze.

Given the vastness of the area, and the scale of the problem, it is going to take considerable time and resources before real and effective changes are seen on the ground.

Farmers need to be supported with an alternative to burning, perhaps with subsidies for fertilisers or to buy the equipment they need to clear the land. Similarly, the large plantations need to step up checks and enforcement of practices, including and especially by their contractors.

In the meantime, Singaporeans, like others in the region, should learn to be better prepared when the haze inevitably returns again.

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Malaysia: Move to prevent peatfires nationwide

Lee Yen Mun and Yee Xiang Yun The Star 30 Jun 13;

BANTING: Initiatives are being taken to prevent peatfires nationwide so that these do not contribute to the haze situation.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri G. Palanivel said peatlands were being monitored so that any peatfire could be tackled quickly.

Also, he said, check dams and tube wells were being constructed to ensure the peatlands retain water during the current dry season as a preventive measure against fires.

The six states where peatlands abound are Selangor, Pahang, Johor, Kelantan, Sabah and Sarawak.

According to Palanivel, the Government had spent RM11.9mil to deal with the haze problem since 2009.

Under the 10th Malaysia Plan (2011-2015), a total of RM8.9mil has been allocated for this purpose.

The Sub-Regional Ministerial Steer­ing Committee on Trans­boundary Haze Pollution is expected to meet in Kuala Lumpur from July 15-17 to discuss a solution to the annual problem.

Haze is largely due to agricultural slash-and-burn activities in Sumatra during dry weather and winds carry the smoke here and to Singapore.

In Johor Baru, the Department of Environment said it hoped the Indonesian authorities could put out the fires in all 15 hotspots in that country soon, so that the haze does not return to Malaysia.

The air quality has improved tremendously nationwide over the past few days, following a period when the air quality in several areas in the peninsula were hazardous or unhealthy and hundreds of schools had to be temporarily shut.

Department director-general Datuk Halimah Hassan said the current dry season was expected to last until September and there was a possibility of the haze affecting Malaysia again.

“In the event that the fires are not totally put out in time, the south-west monsoon winds will carry the smoke over to our country,” she said.

“But we have received encoura- ging reports from the Asean Speciali-sed Meteorological Centre, so hopefully, the whole episode will be over soon.”

The country has been enjoying good to moderate air quality, according to the department’s Air Pollutant Index readings over the past few days, Halimah said.

“I am happy to report that the readings range between good and moderate, with no unhealthy air quality in any area,” she said.

She was speaking to reporters at a World Environment Day celebration here, where she also urged people not to waste food because this wastage contributes to global warming.

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60 volunteers to start catching litterbugs within next few weeks

Saifulbahri Ismail Channel NewsAsia 29 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu said volunteers from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will be empowered to catch litterbugs in a few weeks' time.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a cleanliness conference on Saturday, Ms Fu said authority cards will soon be given to 60 of these volunteers who have completed training.

More than 400 participants attended the inaugural Keep Singapore Clean Conference.

It was organised by the Public Hygiene Council in support of the Keep Singapore Clean Movement.

They discussed ways to keep Singapore clean.

Ms Fu stressed the importance of having more ground-up initiatives.

Last year, the government mooted the idea of a community-driven effort to tackle public littering.

Powers will be given to members of the community to catch litterbugs.

Under the scheme, volunteers will ask litterbugs to pick up their litter should they witness littering offences. Should offenders refuse to do so, they would be empowered to record the particulars of the offenders. The National Environment Agency will then investigate the cases before prosecuting the offenders.

The NGOs taking part in the scheme are Public Hygiene Council, Waterways Watch Singapore, Singapore Kindness Movement, Singapore Environment Council and Cat Welfare Society.

Ms Fu said: "The idea is really not to have an enlarged enforcement team but rather to have ownership. In other words Singaporeans see that this enforcement or social pressure comes from another person just like me and I think that the effect will be better rather than to have a uniformed person to go around issuing summons. What we want is to have more ground-up pressure to slowly over time inculcate a social norm that it is in our own responsibility to keep the place clean and not to litter."

Giving an update on the dengue situation, Ms Fu said that although there has not been a spike in the number of cases, it is still important to remain vigilant. She said the authorities are still monitoring the situation closely.

Ms Fu will join Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam at the ASEAN Ministerial Meetings in Brunei, which begins on Saturday. She said she is looking forward to meet her counterparts from the region to explain to them some of the environmental issues Singapore is facing. This includes the haze, which adversely affected Singapore this year. Ms Fu hopes to get their support to look for a regional solution.

- CNA/xq

Volunteers to get power to book litterbugs

60 have undergone training and will get accreditation cards soon
Rachel Tan And David Ee Straits Times 9 Jul 13;

ON ORCHARD Road, a group of several volunteers from the Cat Welfare Society stand and observe as an officer from the National Environment Agency (NEA) confronts a litterbug.

They watch as he asks the offender, politely but firmly, to pick up and bin the litter properly.

"We were taught to be non-confrontational and polite. The whole concept is just to persuade them not to litter," said volunteer Phyllis Tan, 36.

This is part of a new NEA training programme to empower volunteers in several non-governmental organisations to curtail littering offences.

Some 60 trained volunteers will be issued accreditation cards in the next few weeks, which give them the authority to ask litterbugs to bin their trash.

And if they refuse, to take down their particulars.

Volunteers are not aware of the exact date they will receive the cards. For a start, the volunteers will come from groups such as the Public Hygiene Council, Waterways Watch Society, Singapore Kindness Movement, Singapore Environment Council and the Cat Welfare Society.

The idea to include members of the public in the effort to prevent littering was first floated by Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan to NEA last year.

He said then: "We believe that, in fact, we need to reclaim community ownership and community action (over the environment)."

Then-NEA chief executive Andrew Tan said at the time: "We need to get to the very heart of behaviour change by promoting the right social values, including 'zero tolerance' towards litter."

The number of littering offences went down from 41,392 in 2009 to 11,131 in 2011.

But chairman of the Public Hygiene Council, Mr Liak Teng Lit, has said that littering remains a serious issue, and that some Singaporeans litter "with impunity".

Trained volunteers will not go on patrols, but are encouraged to dissuade people when they witness them littering.

Over two half-day sessions last month, volunteers also engaged in role-play.

They also learnt to "walk away" if an encounter with a litterbug turned aggressive, said Ms Tan, who acknowledged the risk of conflict. "I mean, if I'm a litterbug and somebody approached me, I would also ask: 'Who are you?'"

She added: "And if we approach litterbugs and they refuse to pick up their litter, what are the chances that they will give us their particulars?"

Should difficult situations arise, volunteers are advised to seek help from NEA officials or note down the particulars of the offender.

Some commentators expressed scepticism.

Sociologist Daniel Goh of the National University of Singapore said: "Ethically, I don't think it is right for a government agency to pit citizens against citizens and expose people to potential violence."

Associate Professor Goh suggested nudge tactics such as creative campaigns and surveillance cameras to change littering behaviour.

But some believe that the task of keeping Singapore clean should not be left only to the authorities. Getting volunteers to come on board is a good ground-up approach.

Said Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement: "It is important to have a critical mass to create social pressure."

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Thailand: Little Edens may become Paradise Lost

As Thai islands draw more visitors, they face growing strain on basic infrastructure
Tan Hui Yee, Thailand Correspondent, In Koh Tao, Thailand
Straits Times 30 Jun 13;

It's nearly midnight but the air buzzes with music from bars and boisterous conversation. An endless stream of freshly tanned Europeans fills a narrow street lined with guesthouses, cafes and souvenir shops. Some of them stride barefoot, having just emerged from the beach nearby.

This is the liveliest stretch of Koh Tao, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, but it is also typical of scenes in many of the country's famed island destinations.

Thailand, which hosted 22.35 million visitors last year, is expecting an even better showing this year. And its islands are a key draw.

Islanders and environmentalists alike are bracing themselves for this surge in numbers, given the potential strain visitors place on these little Edens.

Many rely on wells and rainfall for water, undersea cables and generators for electricity, and process their own sewage. Space for trash is limited and roads are prone to jams if not developed in line with the growth of tourist vehicles.

"These island paradises have a hard time coping with water shortages and the disposal of solid waste," says environmental management expert Chirapol Sintunawa from Mahidol University.

Koh Tao, a 21 sq km diving hot spot that was last week ranked by the popular travel review website TripAdvisor as one of the world's top 10 islands, pulled in 124,000 visitors in 2011 and an estimated 10 per cent more last year. Its sister island Koh Phangan, famed for its Full Moon beach parties, saw an estimated 530,000 visitors last year - a whopping 60 per cent more than in the previous year.

In December last year, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui - another island in the same province - were hit by a three-day blackout. That triggered soul-searching about how the development of basic infrastructure has lagged behind population and tourism growth.

Groups of locals and activists have teamed up to try to reverse the damage. Two weeks ago, Koh Tao held its annual eco-themed festival, where tourists and tourism businesses were cajoled to recycle, pedal around the island and avoid using plastic bags and styrofoam packages.

Businesses gave out free food, while popular bands drew in the crowds.

But the message was clear - it was time to protect the island from further pollution.

"We have to educate the people," Koh Tao's mayor Chaiyan Thurasakul told The Sunday Times.

The 43-year-old Koh Tao native has seen the island grow from a fishing and coconut-farming outcrop to a bustling attraction teeming with diving schools.

He worries about the unbridled growth of hotels and wants to subject new developments to a more rigorous approval process.

The limited sources of water are a top concern. The 85-room Ko Tao Resort on the southern end of the island has to ship water from the mainland to make up part of the 60 cubic metres it needs for its daily operations.

The high-end Jamahkiri Resort and Spa depends on its own desalination plant. It is costly, admits general manager William DeBaeck, but it is better than facing a shortage if rough seas disrupt water deliveries.

Some local businesses are trying to make a difference.

The 180-room Ban's Diving Resort turns its waste cooking oil into soap and biodiesel, which it uses to run its trash compactors.

At the festival ground two weeks ago, it set up booths to share this expertise.

Environmental advocates urge travellers to do their part by choosing less resource-intensive accommodation.

Thailand's Green Leaf Foundation, which is supported by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, promotes this practice by running a voluntary accreditation programme for environmentally friendly hotels.

Ultimately though, it is the hotel operators that can play the biggest part in protecting these island destinations, says Dr Chirapol. "If we give tourists good rooms, there is no way they can pollute the environment.

"You can't really tell the guest to only sing one song in the shower," he jests. But you can give them a water-efficient shower head, as well as shampoo without chemicals that damage waterways, he adds.

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