Best of our wild blogs: 26 Feb 14

Barn Swallow Foraging Aquatic Prey
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Long-tailed macaques walking into the sun at Southern Ridges
from Otterman speaks

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Uphill battle for fish farmers

Grace Chua The Straits Times AsiaOne 15 Feb 14;

Even while Singapore tries to boost the supply of locally farmed fish, the latest mass death incident to hit farmers has highlighted the challenges they face.

It was around Chinese New Year last month when fish farmers off Pasir Ris began to notice something amiss: Their fish were surfacing and gasping.

This showed oxygen was lacking in the water.

In a desperate bid to save their stocks, the fishermen harvested what they could, aerated the water and moved high-value fish into mussel nets that would filter plankton and waste from the water. But it was not enough.

Over the following week, thousands of fish died at 34 fish farms off Pasir Ris and five more farms off Lim Chu Kang. The lethal combination of dry weather and neap tides, when high tides are at their lowest, was pinpointed as the cause of the lack of oxygen in the water.

This was the third such mass deaths in five years. In 2009, farms in the East Johor Strait were hit by a plankton bloom. Plankton compete with fish for oxygen. And last year, dry and low-oxygen conditions off Lim Chu Kang killed fish there.

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) began a push in 2011 to make local supplies account for 15 per cent of total fish consumed here. The figure is currently 7 per cent. Farms here must also produce 17 tonnes of fish for every half hectare of farm space to keep their licences. This year, the fish deaths will be taken into account by the AVA, which issues the licences, and farmers will be given help to restock farms and buy equipment.

However, the latest figures show that in 2012, just 46 out of 120 fish farms met the 17-tonne target, and 42 did not. The rest were new or had changed hands recently. Farmers also say they will continue to face seasonal algae blooms, lack of facilities and high costs.

Natural conditions around Singapore are not exactly conducive to fish farming.

The Causeway restricts water circulation in the Johor Strait, and neap tides reduce current flow. While currents are stronger off Pulau Tekong and around the Southern Islands - the two other areas where farms are allowed - the deeper, faster waters there require a deeper double anchor, making it more expensive, said fish farmer Noven Chew, 37. National University of Singapore emeritus professor Lam Toong Jin, an aquaculture expert, said intensive feeding, organic runoff from land and high temperatures also contribute to algal blooms and low-oxygen conditions.

The choice of fish adds to the challenges. Species such as the grouper are sensitive to low-oxygen conditions, but high labour and feed costs mean farmers like Ms Chew choose to raise these high-value fish to better compete with fish from overseas.

Farmers who raise hardier fish like red snapper, milkfish and grey mullet had better luck in the latest mass deaths. Other pollution sources could arise in the longer term. In an essay on the rise of the Iskandar Malaysia economic zone, researchers from Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies noted the potential for increased pollution and oil spills and the impact of land reclamation.

A spokesman said AVA will work with farms that have yet to reach the minimum production target, and that they have two years to do so. AVA has also disbursed the second $10 million tranche of its Food Fund to 40 farmers to help with equipment costs.

Most of these farmers run small half-hectare farms. In the long run, help may come from technology. Two farms here have worked out ways to farm marine fish on land. SIF Agrotechnology Asia's land-based hatchery treats recirculated saltwater, and OnHand Agrarian has harvested pearl grouper, tiger grouper, lobsters, mussels and sea urchins from a pilot farm, cultivating a complete ecosystem in the same tank.

Such tank-based farming may mean higher infrastructure costs, but lets farmers control water quality, said RSIS senior fellow in food security Paul Teng.

For food security's sake, some form of government help will probably be needed to maintain farm production in small, high-cost Singapore, Professor Teng added.

"It's just like military security. You don't expect returns, you need to secure your borders."

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Singapore opens first LNG terminal, plans for 2nd terminal in the East

Linette Lim Channel NewsAsia 25 Feb 14;

SINGAPORE: Singapore is planning to build a second liquefied natural gas terminal, while expanding the capacity of the first terminal.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced this at the official opening of Singapore's first LNG terminal on Jurong Island on Tuesday evening.

On the second LNG terminal plan, he said the government is studying a few potential sites in the east.

Built at a cost of S$1.7 billion, the first LNG terminal started operations last May and is on track for further expansion.

The LNG terminal is located in the southwestern part of Jurong Island.

The government said it plans to add a fourth storage tank which will increase the terminal's throughput capacity from six to nine million tonnes by annum by 2017.

In 2013, more than 90 per cent of the electricity in Singapore was generated using natural gas. Before the LNG terminal was built, virtually all of Singapore's natural gas supply was imported via pipelines from Malaysia and Indonesia.

But with the LNG terminal in operation, Singapore can import natural gas in liquefied form via large ocean tankers from countries as far away as Trinidad and Tobago.

LNG now makes up 20 per cent of Singapore's natural gas demand.

Mr Lee said: "Because there are more supplier vying for our business, we can obtain more competitive prices. And with more gas available, and new generation capacity entering the market, electricity generation becomes more competitive, which will benefit consumers."

He said a competitive request for proposal will be launched for the next tranche of LNG imports by June.

Mr Lee added that although oil prices have quadrupled since 1995, electricity prices in Singapore have gone up by just 40 per cent over the same period.

He said: "Without market liberalisation, the tendency would have been to pass on the extra cost, and consumers and firms would be paying today much higher electricity bills.

"This is a good example of how private operators, working in competitive markets, can outperform state-owned nationalised industries."

Mr Lee said Singapore will also explore other new energy options, like solar energy. He said when solar technology becomes more competitive, Singapore will be ready to deploy it on a larger scale.

- CNA/de

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Dry spell leads to more vegetation fires, mosquitoes, health problems

Lim Wee Leng Channel NewsAsia 25 Feb 14;

SINGAPORE: The number of vegetation fires early this year was four times more than the same period last year.

The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) said there were nearly 100 such fires between January and February this year, compared with 25 in the same period in 2013.

Although there is an increase from last year, the figures are still lower compared with the peak periods in 2005 and 2009, said SCDF.

In 2005, there were 532 fires between January and February and in 2009 there were 341 fires for the same period.

The SCDF added that most vegetation fires were minor in nature.

No injuries have been reported.

The more notable vegetation fires included one at Commonwealth Drive and another at Clementi.

The fire at Commonwealth Drive on 20 January covered an area measuring about 20m by 20m and took firefighters over one hour to put out.

The fire at Clementi Avenue 6 on 30 January covered an area measuring about 60m by 30m.

Firefighters brought the fire under control within half an hour and took another four hours to complete damping down the fire.

But the fires are just one of the effects of the dry spell.

Mosquitoes of a certain breed have become more common because of the dry spell.

Pest control experts say such mosquitoes are active at night and usually thrive between February and May.

Experts say that with the dry weather, mosquito-breeding spots are less likely to be flushed away, by rain.

Meanwhile, one doctor said he is seeing more patients who have respiratory conditions and eczema because of the dry spell.

- CNA/ir

More vegetation fires this year, but most were minor
Woo Sian Boon Today Online 26 Feb 14;

The 99 vegetation fires between January and Feb 19 were four times the number in the first two months of last year, said the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) yesterday.

Despite the spike, it said the number was still a fraction of those that occurred during the same months in 2005 (532 fires) and 2009 (341 fires), though it warned there may be more of such fires should the dry spell continue.

Most of this year’s fires were also minor, causing no injuries, said the SCDF.

In a haze advisory issued on Monday, the National Environment Agency said the increased outbreak of vegetation fires in recent weeks due to the dry weather could have caused the burning smell that residents in some areas have noticed.

The SCDF said patrols have been stepped up at hot spots to detect fire risks and mitigate fires. Fire-prevention advisory notes have also been issued to relevant agencies, such as the Singapore Land Authority and the National Parks Board. The SCDF is also working with other government agencies on the Wildfire Task Force Committee, which it chairs, to monitor the dry spell.

The SCDF reminded the public not to indiscriminately throw away lit cigarette butts onto dry land. Unwanted items such as furniture should not be discarded in grassy areas as they can become fuel for a fire. WOO SIAN BOON

Nurseries, farms badly hit by higher expenses during dry spell
Woo Sian Boon and Kenneth Tan Today Online 26 Feb 14;

SINGAPORE — Nurseries have seen their water bills balloon after they had to water their plants more frequently. Ponds that vegetable farms in Lim Chu Kang and Bukit Batok use to irrigate their crops are drying up. School fields have also been damaged.

Across the island, individuals, organisations and businesses have been affected by the record dry spell. With the dry weather expected to continue until the middle of next month, water consumption levels have already gone up in the past week.

In response to TODAY’s queries, national water agency PUB said it has observed a slight increase of about 15 million gallons per day in water usage on average last week, an amount equivalent to about 27 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Before showers in some parts of the island on the weekend of Feb 8 and 9, less than 1mm of rain had fallen on any day between Jan 13 and Feb 8. The 27-day dry spell is a new record, beating the previous mark of 18 days set in 2008.

At five nurseries and floriculture businesses along Thomson Road, the plants are being watered twice a day — up from the usual once daily. This has led to water bills doubling or even tripling in some cases.

Candy Floriculture Director Sharon Goh said: “Customers whom we do plant maintenance work for have also been complaining that their water bills have increased as they need to water their plants more. We can’t do anything about it, unless it rains.”

Some of the nurseries, including Green Gween Landscape Design & Construction, will be erecting additional solar netting to provide more shade for the plants. Green Gween owner John Gwee said: “If it doesn’t rain for another one, two months, it’ll be pretty bad for the industry.”

Hawaii Landscape Executive Director Lilian Koh said since last month, her monthly water bills have increased from the usual S$300 to about S$600. Noting that Singapore experienced wet weather during the same period last year, she said: “This dry spell is quite unusual.”

Vegetable farms are also feeling the impact. Eden Garden Farm owner Chan Yow Tiong, 62, said the pond at his farm has shrunk by half. “If it doesn’t rain for the next three weeks, we are in trouble,” he said.

Some farmers have seen a drop in their harvest. GHH Vegetables is producing only 3kg of vegetables per day, compared with the usual yield of 30 to 40kg, said its Business Development Manager Abby Ong, 26. As an interim measure, Ms Ong said the farm is buying vegetables from other farms to meet orders.

Yili Vegetation and Trading Managing Director Alan Toh said his farm’s harvest has gone down by 20 per cent. He added that he expects his water bill to increase as he has started using potable water to water his vegetables.

Trees across the island are largely still holding up quite well, the National Parks Board said. It noted that during this dry spell, there have been days that were unusually cool and less moisture was lost from the trees. Nevertheless, it has taken some measures, such as watering newly-planted young saplings and significant trees, such as Heritage Trees, with non-potable water.

The dry spell has also affected activities at some schools. TODAY understands that SJI Junior, for instance, has been conducting its Physical Education lessons in the school’s indoor hall. Its field has been damaged by the dry weather.

Meanwhile, a Ministry of Education spokesperson said the ministry has reminded schools to exercise extra care when conducting outdoor physical activities. For example, schools will provide frequent water breaks, before, during and after the physical activities, the spokesperson said. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SIAU MING EN

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Malaysia: 1m to have dry taps on Sunday

Adib Povera New Straits Times 26 Feb 14;

SELANGOR EXERCISE: 2nd round of water distribution

KUALA LUMPUR: Around one million residents in Selangor are expected to experience water supply disruption because of the implementation of another water distribution that is expected to begin this Sunday.

The exercise is scheduled to be carried out two days after the implementation of the first water distribution plan that will affect more than 60,000 households from 71 areas in Hulu Langat, Kuala Langat and Sepang.

National Water Services Commission (SPAN) chairman Datuk Ismail Kassim, in a statement yesterday, said the second water distribution was approved following discussion with several parties, including the Energy, Green Technology and Water Ministry, the Selangor government, National Security Council, Lembaga Urus Air Selangor and Syarikat Bekalan Air Sdn Bhd (Syabas).

"However, since Syabas needed to make a comprehensive preparation over the matter, SPAN decided that the second round of the water distribution should begin this Sunday.

"The implementation of the second phase should be carried out thoroughly and carefully since there will be more people and areas affected by the disruption .

"The water supply system involved in this exercise will be complex, more labour intensive and require more water tankers, static water tanks and a service centre."

He said Syabas was set to explain the complete details about the second distribution plan by Friday since it was required to issue a notice to affected consumers before the exercise.

He said the water reserve at the Sungai Selangor and Klang Gates dams had dropped to an alarming level of 48.94 per cent and 54.10 per cent.

At press time, the water reserve at the Sungai Selangor Dam was at 112.67 million cubic metres while the Klang Gates Dam recorded 13.72 million cubic metres.

The other five dams in Selangor recorded more than 70 per cent of water reserve.

"The Sungai Selangor Dam is one of two that supply raw water to treatments plants in Sungai Selangor Phase 1 (SSP1), SSP2, SSP3, Rasa and Rantau Panjang.

"The five plants discharge 2,900 million litres per day, which cater to 60 per cent of consumers in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya.

"Meanwhile, the Klang Gates Dam channels raw water to plants in Bukit Nenas and Wangsa Maju, which can generate 130 million and 45 million litres of treated water daily.."

Ismail, however, did not elaborate on the exact number of households that would be affected by the second round of water distribution.

The situation is expected to mirror that in August 2012, when the closure of four water treatment plants in the state affected more than a million consumers statewide.

Syabas corporate communications and public affairs department assistant general manager Priscilla Alfred said the company would issue a statement today.

However, she was unable to furnish details on how many people would be affected by the second exercise.

Cloud seeding ops to begin
The Star 26 Feb 14;

PETALING JAYA: Cloud seeding operations are expected to take place today over water catchment areas serving water treatment plants in four states which have not seen rain over the past one month.

Malaysian Meteorological Depart­ment (MMD) senior meteoro­logist Azhar Ishak confirmed yesterday that cloud seeding was likely to be conducted over catchment areas of dams in Selangor, Johor, Malacca and Negri Sembilan today and tomorrow.

“We can confirm that the operations will commence with forecasts showing the appearance of the tower­ing cumulus clouds which are suitable for the seeding operations,” he said yesterday.

In the tropics, cloud seeding is an attempt to induce rain by dispersing substances into the air that serve as points where condensation can occur.

When asked about the chances of the success of the operations, Azhar said it would depend on weather conditions nearer to the seeding time.

“There is the wind factor coupled with prevailing atmospheric conditions,” he said, adding that if successful, rain should fall within 10 to 15 minutes from the time of seeding.

Azhar said that up to this point, it had not rained over dam catchment areas, though there was isolated rain in other areas.

“Ultimately, success is also depen­dent on whether rain will fall within the targeted catchment areas after the seeding exercise,” said Azhar, who revealed that the Royal Malay­sian Air Force would take charge of seeding operations in the Klang Valley by using material that has been proven to be safe.

In this case, ordinary salt would be used to seed the clouds.

Cloud seeding operations in Malaysia have recorded success rates of between 57% and 65% since 1974.

Johor also plans to introduce cloud seeding over the next two weeks to increase the water level at the Sembrong Timur Dam which serves residents in the Kluang district.

The state meteorological department and the Johor Water Manage­ment Authority will be tasked with handling seeding operations in the state.

According to MMD’s website, cloud seeding was carried out in the past over Malacca’s Durian Tunggal catchment area, as well as Selangor’s Langat, Klang Gates, Semenyih and Sungai Tinggi catchment areas.

17 days of dry taps
The Star 26 Feb 14;

BALAKONG: It is Day 17 of dry taps and the prolonged drought in the country is taking its toll, especially on tempers and the health of the people in this area.

They are frustrated and angry at the predicament they find themselves in. And with good reason.

Many have to carry water in buckets, plastic bottles and all sorts of other containers over distances, and for some, these precious supplies must be lugged up flights of stairs.

Mohd Isa Hamzah, 33, a resident at Taman Impian Ehsan, said he had fallen ill from all the times he had to gather water from public pipes and other filling points, and then heave the containers to his third-floor apartment.

“I have fever and body aches that started a few days ago,” he said. He has a wife and two young children.

Even the car that he used to transport the water containers was starting to give trouble.

“I need to change the shock absorbers, the weight of the containers has been too much,” he said, adding that he needed to fetch water at least three to four times a day.

He was also suffering from insufficient rest, he said, because the water tankers sent by Syabas made their rounds at irregular times and mostly in the wee hours.

Norlaila Mohd Nor, a 42-year-old kuih seller, said the situation had been very difficult for her and her disabled husband.

Aside from having to put food on the table, she has to fetch water for her family’s needs.

“I have to do everything. This is frustrating and I can’t even find time to make kuih to sell. How am I going to cope?” she said.

She stopped her business about two weeks ago.

Nor Kastini Mat Yusof, a 28-year-old babysitter, is upset that the crisis has gone on for weeks.

She is also unhappy that the water tankers are irregular in their visits.

“They come at odd hours and if we miss them, things get really difficult for us,” she complained.

Nurse Haridah Said, 56, said the crisis had stopped her from attending her Quran classes, which she usually goes for three times a week.

“I need to fetch water for my family and can only do that after I get home from work, so I am unable to attend the classes.

“My family and I no longer bathe twice a day and this is causing uneasiness. We are so tired. How long more must we cope?” she asked.

In Taman Bukit Anggerik, Cheras, the water disruption has been so severe that the majority of hawker centres there have temporarily closed.

Resident K.L. Ng said that even the most popular hawker centre along Jalan 34/154 had stopped operating.

“Normally, it is so packed that getting a seat for breakfast, lunch or dinner is difficult,” he said.

Only one hawker centre and a few other eateries continue to operate and these rely on water transported from other areas. The water from the tankers is not enough for these businesses.

Ng and some other residents said they were concerned over the cleanliness of the supplies used by these places. So they travel long distances, to where there are no water cuts, to eat or order takeaway meals.

“Some even brave the heavy traffic into the city centre to have their meals,” he added.

Other businesses that have been hit in Taman Bukit Anggerik are laundromats, hair salons and car wash operations.

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Malaysia, Singapore grapple with prolonged dry spell

* Dry weather forecast to continue into March
* Concerns will hit palm oil production
* Singapore ramps up supply of recycled water
* Malaysia cabinet to decide on calling an emergency

Laura Philomin and Stuart Grudgings Reuters 26 Feb 14;

SINGAPORE/KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Singapore and Malaysia are grappling with some of the driest weather they have ever seen, forcing the tiny city-state to ramp up supplies of recycled water while its neighbour rations reserves amid disruptions to farming and fisheries.

Singapore, which experiences tropical downpours on most days, suffered its longest dry spell on record between Jan 13 and Feb 8 and has had little rain since.

Shares in Hyflux Ltd, which operates desalination and water recycling operations there, have risen 3.5 pct over the past month.

In peninsular Malaysia, 15 areas have not had rainfall in more than 20 days, with some of them dry for more than a month, according to the Malaysian Meteorological Department.

The dry spell in the Southeast Asian neighbours is expected to run for another two weeks, forecasters say.

The Indonesian province of Riau has also been hit, with part of the region wreathed in smog, usually caused by farmers setting fires to illegally clear land. Poor visibility has disrupted flights to and from the airport in Pekanbaru.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak was due to discuss the drought at a regular cabinet meeting on Wednesday that would decide whether to declare a national emergency, according to state news agency Bernama.

While some dry weather is expected at this time of year, the abnormal lack of rain is raising concerns about the pace of climate change in the region.

"The concern is that these uncommon weather events may be happening more frequently sooner rather than later," said National University of Singapore weather researcher Winston Chow.


Malaysia is the world's second-largest producer of palm oil and planters say dry weather lasting more than two months can hurt yields six months to two years down the line, affecting output and fuelling benchmark Kuala Lumpur prices.

Concerns that dry weather will hurt production have helped push up palm oil prices about 8 percent in February, setting the market on track for its biggest monthly gain in four months.

The lack of rain is also believed to have caused extensive damage to the rice crop.

In Singapore the dry weather is being blamed in part for the mass death of fish stocks at several offshore farms. Around 160 tonnes of fish have died in recent weeks because of a lack of oxygen in the water.

The Malaysian Fire and Rescue Department (JBPM) said it had received more than 7,000 calls involving forest and bush fires nationwide since the beginning of February, due to the hot weather, five times higher than in the same period last year.

Selangor, Malaysia's richest and most industrialized state, began limited water rationing on Tuesday as levels in its dams plunged to critical lows.

"We pledge that every consumer will receive water, but it will be rationed to ensure supply every two days," Bernama quoted state chief minister Abdul Khalid Ibrahim as saying.

"In a week, consumers will receive water for four days."

The state of Negeri Sembilan near the capital, Kuala Lumpur, declared a "state of crisis" last week as water in its dams fell to critical levels.

In Singapore, the Public Utilities Board (PUB) has boosted the supply of recycled water, known as NEWater, and desalinated supplies, in order to keep up reservoir levels.

Singapore's national security concerns mean it has developed into one of the world leaders in water technology as it tries to cut reliance on imported supplies from Malaysia.

Around 55 percent of Singapore's water is now desalinated or recycled, in line with an aim to be self-sufficient by 2061, when a 1962 agreement to buy 250 million gallons per day from Malaysia ends, according to the PUB.

The deal lets Singapore buy 250 million gallons of water a day from Malaysia at 0.03 ringgit ($0.01) per 1,000 gallons, and sell back treated water for 0.50 ringgit per 1,000 gallons.

Johor, the southern Malaysian state that borders Singapore, has been urging an early re-negotiation, saying the deal is too advantageous to the city-state.

"The talks should begin immediately," Hasni Mohammad, chairman of a state public works panel, told Bernama in an interview on Feb 18.

"We have long been in a losing position when we sell raw water to Singapore at three sen (for 1,000 gallons)," he said, adding that the price of treated water was too high. (Additional reporting by Niluksi Koswanage; Writing by Rachel Armstrong; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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Malaysia: We are generating our own haze, says Met Dept

The Star 26 Feb 14;

KUALA LUMPUR: The causes of the current haze in Malaysia have been identified to be domestic sources such as forest burning, smoke from factories, vehicle emissions and open burning.

Malaysian Meteorological Department (JMM) director-general Datuk Che Gayah Ismail said the haze had no connection with the recent eruption of Mount Sinabung in North Sumatera, Indonesia or other outside factors.

She said the hot and dry weather without any rainfall for several days experienced in the country only made the situation worse.

"This time, the haze is caused by domestic sources and the lack of rainfall has caused such things as gas, dust, ash and particles to float in the atmosphere and not fall down to the earth," she told Bernama.

The Department's records showed that the haze was now concentrated in large urban areas with economic and industrial activities as well as a large number of vehicles such as Kuala Lumpur, Selangor (Subang) and Penang (Seberang Perai).

Che Gayah said the temperature this year was high compared to the same period last year, due to the hot and dry weather, and this was expected to continue until the middle of March.

"The haze is still within control, but early measures to prevent it from getting worse should be taken, including avoiding open burning and reduced use of private vehicles on roads," she said.

The Air Pollution Index recorded by the Department of Environment at noon Wednesday showed that the air quality status in 23 areas was good, and average in 26 others. - Bernama

Over 7,000 bush, peat fire calls since Feb 1
Kalavaani Karupiah and Tasnim Lokman New Straits Times 26 Feb 14;

HIGH VOLUME: Fire and Rescue Department head says 300 calls received per day in Selangor, Johor, Kelantan and Perak

KUALA LUMPUR: THE Fire and Rescue Department has received more than 7,000 calls involving bush and peat fires from Feb 1 to date due to the dry spell.

Its director general, Datuk Wan Mohd Nor Ibrahim, said the calls increased fivefold in the period compared with the same period last year.

"We receive an estimated 300 calls per day on fire. Most of the calls involved locations in the states of Selangor, Johor, Kelantan and Perak," he said after officiating the 2014 Fire and Safety Seminar yesterday.

He said the department's personnel were on standby in case the situation worsened during the current dry spell.

Wan Mohd said the department would continue to keep a close watch, particularly on locations nationwide that were considered as hot spots.

Meanwhile, the Department of Environment said they were currently pumping water from tube wells to be used to extinguish the fires.

Its director-general, Datuk Halimah Hassan, said water levels nationwide were low and insufficient to douse bush fires.

"Officers were told to pump out water from tube wells in fire-prone areas to be used in case of a bush fire. This is being carried out nationwide to ensure water usage and fires are controlled."

In George Town, a bush fire at Bukit Relau on Monday night caused panic among hundreds of residents living at the foot of the hill.

During the 9pm incident residents, particularly those from Jalan Yeap Chor Ee and Bukit Gambir, were horrified as they watched the blaze from their homes.

The blaze, which took place in a 0.4ha area of shrubs and bushes, took 30 Fire and Rescue Department personnel more than half an hour to bring under control.

Jalan Perak Fire and Rescue Department operations chief Kamaruzi Mohd Nor said it was tough fighting the fire in the dark.

"We had to chop down the shrubbery with parang to reach certain recesses where embers of the fire were spotted."

Kamaruzi said the cause of the fire was unknown, but attributed it to the drought as the underlying factor.

He said a similar fire had broken out in the area about five years ago. Additional reporting by Phuah Ken Lin

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Indonesia: More Riau Haze Arrests as Singapore Drafts Legislation

Jakarta Globe 25 Feb 14;

Jakarta. Another 24 suspects were charged with setting brushfires in Riau on Tuesday in the latest police crackdown on illegal land clearing as the fires raging across the Sumatran province for more than three weeks showed signs of subsiding.

“All suspects are being investigated by the district police,” Riau Police spokesman Adj. Sr. Cmr. Guntur Aryo Tejo told the Indonesian news portal

The arrests came on the heels of last week’s arrest of a dozen people allegedly involved in setting some of the region’s widespread fires. None of those arrested had any expressed affiliation with the large palm oil and pulp companies found in Indonesia’s once-forested Riau province. The act of setting fire to the forest land has been called a “traditional” method to clear-out land for palm oil plantations, one allegedly used by small-scale farmers for decades in this fertile region. Law enforcement’s seeming inability to address the issue has become a heated concern in Singapore and Malaysia.

One suspect, a 49-year-old woman, was allegedly caught setting fires herself, in spite of protests from her neighbors. A witness told police that he warned the woman to not set fire to scrub land in East Dumai district. Ignoring his pleas, the woman set the ground alight. The fire quickly spread to cover more than a hectare of land, according to Tempo reports.

“The fire has been doused by police officers with the help of residents,” Guntur told Tempo. “The perpetrator and the evidence have been taken to the local police office.”

This year, police in Riau have taken a tough stance on illegal land clearing. Last year’s fires raged for weeks and blanketed neighboring Malaysia and Singapore and hazardous levels of thick haze. The pollution ignited a diplomatic row between Indonesia and Malaysia and Singapore — two nations seemingly exasperated with Indonesia’s inability to control burning in Riau and Kalimantan. Singapore was quick to pour fuel on the flames this year, with the city-state’s environment minister almost immediately accusing Indonesia of not caring about the welfare of its neighbors.

The city-state’s environment minister Vivian Balakhrisnan accused “those countries” bordering Singapore of ineffectual law enforcement as he proposed legislation that would allow Singaporean police to criminally charge companies caught setting land on fire.

“We need to go further,” Vivian said. “We have therefore decided to draft new legislation with extra-territorial applications. If approved by Parliament, errant companies — local or foreign — will face criminal charges in Singapore courts if their overseas actions cause haze pollution in Singapore.”

He said that Singapore was tired of dealing with the problem.

“The root cause is commercial,” he said. “It is not the weather or the environment. Errant companies have been clearing land by illegal burning because it is the cheapest way to do so.”

The proposed legislation — the “Transboundary Haze Pollution Bill” — is still under deliberation. If passed, parties responsible for haze-causing activities would have to pay up to $300,000 in fines, or or up to $450,000 if deliberate criminal activity could be proven in court. The bill would apply to Singaporean and non-Singaporean entities equally, although enforcing the law outside the city-state would present its own challenges.

“We hope this legislation will send a strong signal of deterrence to errant companies,” Balakhrisnan said.

Although this year’s haze has yet to impact Singaporeans — air quality has remained safe throughout the heaviest period of burning — residents in Riau were left to suffer the ill-effects of forest fires as nearly 6,000 hectares burned. Air quality in Riau dropped to dangerous levels, prompting school closures and an outbreak of respiratory illness.

The number of hotspots was recorded as 145 on Tuesday, down significantly from the 1,398 reported by the Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) on Monday. Most of the remaining fires burned in Bengkalis district. Flights at Pekanbaru’s Sutan Syarif Kasim II International Airport continued to be affected on Tuesday, with 16 scheduled flights suffering delays, airport manager Ibnu Hasan told the Indonesian news portal

Other flights were diverted to Batam, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Ibnu said.

More than 100 people were forced to evacuate their homes as the fires spread and air quality dropped in Bengkalis, the local police chief told the Indonesian news portal

“Our data shows that 125 people in total, including 24 children under five years old, 18 children and 83 adults [have left their homes],” Bengkalis Police Chief Adj. Sr. Cmr. Andry Wibowo told “We had to take them to shelters because their village was surrounded by fire, causing thick smog.”

The provincial government continued to advise against children going outside, closing local schools for some two weeks.

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Stakeholders in Jakarta map out long-term solutions to haze crisis

Reuters 25 Feb 14;

Peatland fires in eastern Sumatra, Indonesia, in recent weeks are again creating thick haze in the region, closing schools, canceling flights, and leading to the arrests of farmers accused of lighting the fires.

For now, the weather is keeping the smoke away from neighboring Singapore and Malaysia, where in June 2013 wind-blown haze from Sumatran fires caused record-high levels of air pollution. Last year’s crisis produced international headlines and quick responses from governments: High-level regional talks in September led to a proposed transboundary haze monitoring system, and earlier this month, Singapore drafted a bill that would allow it to fine companies for fires that take place on Sumatran plantations. The return of fires this month, however, has illustrated the need for long-term, holistic solutions to the haze issue.

“The situation is much more complex than the media portrayed, when there was a very high focus on the ‘hotspots,’ which are important, but crude, indications from space,” Peter Holmgren, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), told the audience. “We need to document the full extent of issues on the ground, better understand how priorities are set and decisions made, and then actively share information and knowledge.”

To that end, a workshop held in January in Jakarta was the first major step toward a research program to better understand the drivers of the fires, to spur greater collaboration among Indonesian and regional stakeholders at all levels, and to untie the knot of policies and regulations that govern land use and fire protection in Indonesia. The workshop, hosted by CIFOR, drew more than 50 people — including researchers, government officials, and leaders from communities, civil society and the private sector, among others. CIFOR has extensively studied fires in Indonesia’s tropical forests, in particular the 1997 crisis and the 2013 fires.

The meeting illuminated just how complex the situation is in the ground.

There was widespread agreement on several issues — chief among them, that the fires that caused the haze last year were not forest fires. Set deliberately to clear peatlands and deforested areas for agriculture, the fires “were caused by people,” affirmed Daniel Murdiyarso, a CIFOR principal scientist, at the workshop’s first session.

As the day went on, however, the workshop laid bare a wide divergence of perceptions among the participants about who was responsible for starting the fires and who was responsible for putting them out; about which agency had jurisdiction over the fires, and which laws applied; about why the fires caused so much haze; and even about who suffered the greatest impacts. From numerous presentations and breakout discussions, though, a consensus started to coalesce around the need for stronger governance, better monitoring and more research.

‘The main problem’

More than a few presentations at the workshop hammered on two key themes: overlapping claims over land ownership, and contradictory land and fire regulations. Land use, land tenure and firefighting in Sumatra are governed by a tangle of national, provincial and customary laws. This situation, participants explained, is exacerbated by an influx of land-seeking migrants; investments in agricultural expansion by companies; and tensions among small-scale agriculturists, mid-level planters and investors, and plantation companies. A lack of coordination among different levels of government; inadequate monitoring; and insufficient capacity in law enforcement and firefighting render governance woefully ineffective.

“Governance,” said one participant, “is the main problem [behind] everything.”

In a presentation to the workshop, another participant explained that at least eight national regulations govern fires and disasters, including the fires of June 2013; many of the regulations are in conflict with each other, he said. The speaker, a senior government official, said that local governments have no standard procedures for fighting fires — and in any case are more concerned about fires in buildings than on lands. “No one is reminding local governments,” he said, “that [land] fires are under their jurisdiction.”

With respect to land-use governance, the official said, conservation forests are the authority of the central government — but plantations (like oil palm) and peatlands have been under the authority of local governments, causing further confusion. Legal loopholes enable local governments to grant plantations on production forests controlled by the central government, while land-seeking migrants occupy such lands illegally but with the backing of the local elite. Customary law, then, is in conflict with provincial and national laws over land ownership.

This scenario promotes uncertainty over land tenure, said the head of an indigenous community group in Riau province, where most of the June 2013 fires burned. This has led, he said, to forested landscapes controlled by the central government in Sumatra being seen increasingly as a source of income to exploit, fueling an influx of migrant communities and agro-industrial businesses into Riau to compete for land in these areas. This influx pushes aside local people — and the traditional knowledge that they employ to clear land by fire without allowing the fires to spread.

“Fire and haze are consequences of this battle,” the community leader said.

Another participant, representing a forestry corporation, disagreed with statements that placed blame on large-scale plantation owners, saying that fires on his company’s properties were not only against its longstanding “no-burn” policy, but that they represented a major threat to its assets. “We act fast to detect and extinguish fires in our concessions and near our concessions,” he said. When fires occur on company concessions, he said, “We are the victims.”

Gaps in research

David Gaveau, a CIFOR scientist who presented research at the workshop, began mapping overlapping claims over land ownership using satellite technology and maps of concession boundaries obtained from the central and provincial governments. His work showed that more than half of the area that burned in June 2013 lay within concession areas allocated for industrial oil palm or acacia plantations — but that 60 percent of this land was occupied by smallholders. Smallholders say that the land they occupy in the concessions belongs to them.

The data, however, don’t explain who started fires, Gaveau said, but field investigations confirm the occurrence of fires used in conflicts among small agriculturalists and companies. It does not make business sense, he said, for companies to burn their productive plantations, although historical satellite records suggest that companies have used fire to convert forest lands to plantations in 2005. Gaveau said that it is fair to conclude that both companies and small agriculturalists have used fire at one point in time during the land conversion process to agriculture.

These issues, said Louis Verchot, director of forests and environment at CIFOR, are just part of the puzzle that research can help assemble. A broad research program on the haze issue, he told the workshop, would seek to contribute to a reduction in fires, carbon emissions and haze through a better understanding of the socioeconomic drivers of fires; of the fires’ impacts on climate and human health; and of the challenges of and opportunities for improving governance.

The next step in a proposed haze research program will come into focus in the coming months and is among the topics to be discussed at the Forests Asia Summit, 5-6 May — just as Sumatra’s dry season begins.

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Indonesia: Airlines report losses caused by Riau haze

Fadli, The Jakarta Post 26 Feb 14;

Several airlines have said flight rerouting and cancellations caused by haze clouds in Riau has led them to suffer losses.

Lion Air’s Sumatra operational head, Mahrido, said the low-cost carrier had to spend more on extra fuel and airport services for passengers as its flights were rerouted or delayed due to thick haze in the province.

“We have suffered significant financial losses due to the haze in Riau. The losses were primarily caused by more spending on fuel due to flight rerouting and extra services for passengers when they were waiting in airports,” said Mahrido.

He said that since yesterday, Lion Air had rerouted and even cancelled flights departing for Pekanbaru, Riau, due to heavy haze.

On Tuesday, flights from Kuala Namu International Airport to Sibolga and from Kuala Namu to Gunung Sitoli in Nias were also cancelled due to the haze.

Meanwhile, a Lion flight from Jakarta to Pekanbaru was temporarily rerouted to Batam.

“Flights in Sumatra have been disrupted due to haze in Riau. But based on existing rules, our airline will not give any compensation as the weather has caused the cancellation,” said Muhrido.

The head of the air safety task force at Hang Nadim Airport, Indah Irwansyah, said three flights from Jakarta to Pekanbaru – Garuda Indonesia, Citilink and Lion Air - had to be rerouted to Batam.

“We cannot ensure how long the rerouting will last, but as soon as conditions improve, flights can depart to Pekanbaru,” said Irwansyah.

The rerouting decision was taken as the visibility level at Sultan Syarif Kasim II Airport in Pekanbaru deteriorated to below 1,000 meters, below the minimum standard for safe flying. (idb/ebf)

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Indonesia: Tourists willing to pay for conservation

Ni Komang Erviani, The Jakarta Post 26 Feb 14;

Foreign tourists visiting Nusa Penida islets are willing to pay admission that would go toward an environmental program, a survey revealed.

A survey conducted by the Coral Triangle Center (CTC) in 2011 revealed that 83 percent of tourists are willing to pay an entrance fee of up to US$4.30 per visit or up to $9.50 per year. The survey involved 300 foreign tourists who visited Nusa Penida in September 2011.

“From the survey, we found that most tourists are willing to pay to support environmental conservation in Nusa Penida. They are really eager to help maintain the area,” Marthen Welly, the CTC’s learning sites manager, told The Jakarta Post recently.

“Through the survey, we wanted to find out whether tourists would be willing to pay admission and how much, as it is really important for the conservation program and for building infrastructure,” Marthen said.

The Nusa Penida Conservation area comprises the Nusa Penida, Nusa Ceningan and Nusa Lembongan waters in Klungkung regency. The development of the conservation area was started in 2008 by the local community and Nature Conservancy and has been continued by the CTC.

The survey revealed that 95 percent of tourist visiting Nusa Penida waters felt that a conservation program was needed in Nusa Penida. However, only 83 percent stated a willingness to pay an entrance fee.

Nusa Penida’s waters are a popular spot for divers from all over the world, with manta rays and Mola mola sunfish being the main attractions. It has attracted thousands of foreign tourists to dive and enjoy the marine life.

Based on the survey, 50 percent of tourists are European, while 31 percent are Australian. Others come from a variety of countries, including other areas of Indonesia.

Most tourists visit Nusa Penida to snorkel and scuba dive. Another reason is to enjoy the beach and sun, and to experience the lifestyle of local people and the local culture. Most visit Nusa Penida for one to three days.

The Klungkung administration enacted a bylaw on entrance fees to Nusa Penida in 2011, namely Rp 7,000 for adults (60 cents) and Rp 4,000 for children. However, the entrance fees have yet to be implemented. “We will review the entrance fee as it is too low and does not reflect what tourists are willing to pay,” Klungkung Regent Nyoman Suwirta said.

He added that the Klungkung administration was eager to develop sustainable tourism in Nusa Penida. He said the administration would work seriously on preserving the area.

“We are committed to developing Nusa Penida through an environmental friendly program, to create sustainability,” he said.

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