Best of our wild blogs: 8 Aug 14

The bloodstained cliffs south of Sentosa
from The Long and Winding Road

Job Opportunity: Specialist Associate (AV/IT)
from News from Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

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Singapore's ground-breaking haze law faces uphill challenge

Rujun Shen PlanetArk 7 Aug 14;

Indonesia's complex rules on land use and the difficulty in prosecuting foreign businesses mean Singapore has its work cut out bringing companies to book under its new cross-border air pollution law.

The bill, approved by parliament on Tuesday, has won praise from politicians and environmentalists as a bold move to tackle a decades-long problem of smoke from forest fires in neighboring Indonesia choking the city state.

Indonesia has failed to tackle the problem, despite repeated vows to do so, so Singapore decided to take matters into its own hands after acrid smoke blanketed the island last year, posing a danger to health and a worry to the tourist industry.

The law sets out the possibility of fines for companies that cause haze pollution regardless of whether they operate in Singapore. But making it work in practice will be tough.

"I am skeptical of whether there will ever be a successful prosecution when this law comes into force," Eugene Tan, a member of parliament and law professor, said during debate on the bill.

The haze is caused by forest clearing in Indonesia during the annual dry season, particularly when fires are set to clear undergrowth which then spark fires in layers of peat.

Some of the clearing is believed done by palm oil plantation companies with Singapore connections.

The bill makes those who cause haze both criminally and civilly liable, and it is written to provide law enforcers with a relatively low threshold to prove that a company outside Singapore has polluted the air.

Singapore authorities will be able to rely on a "causal link" such as satellite images or weather maps pin-pointing where smoke has come from.

Singapore can then impose fines of up to S$100,000 ($80,000) per day of smoke, up to a maximum of S$2 million, on companies or individuals that are found to cause Singapore's air pollutant standards index to rise to the "unhealthy" level.


But even with this low-proof burden, analysts say the often contradictory laws governing land use in Indonesia and the likely difficulty in getting the co-operation of government officials there will make prosecutions hard.

"There is some potential for conflict over the need for cooperation from local authorities (in Indonesia) in gathering evidence against violators," said Andrew Wood, senior analyst at Business Monitor International.

Singapore is hoping that just the threat of the new law preventing a company or its executives from doing business in the banking hub will be a strong enough deterrent without needing to make many prosecutions.

"This will have a salutary effect on key office holders and decision makers of the companies, even those companies with no assets or no physical presence in Singapore," Minister of Environment Vivian Balakrishnan said in the debate.

Officers or partners of foreign companies that have no presence or assets in Singapore will be served notice in person when they enter the country if they are accused under the law. They could be ordered to stay on the island to assist with the investigation and a failure to comply could lead to fines and even time in prison.

That is likely to alarm some company executives.

"I'd certainly be worried if I were in their position," said David Gaveau, a researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research.

But Gaveau said it will be very difficult to determine who is responsible for starting the fires.

"It's not just companies that do the burning, but also the communities, which could include a broad range of people from small farmers to mid-level investors. We don't know who they are," he said.

Gaveau said analysis by his organization showed the fires on the two largest burnt areas in Indonesia's Riau province on Sumatra island during February and March this year were either started outside concessions, or on land occupied by small-scale operators within concessions.

(Editing by Rachel Armstrong and Robert Birsel)

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At the end of the day, NMPs make the House better

Robin Chan The Straits Times AsiaOne 8 Aug 14;

The Super Passion Award goes to Ms Faizah for her focus on enviromental issues and her ability to turn any matter into one about the environment.

Yesterday was the last time most of the nine Nominated MPs will set foot in the House, with their term coming to an end this month.

The nostalgia was already sinking in for Ms Mary Liew, who was seen passing some printed photos to the other NMPs seated near her.

Some, like Ms Janice Koh, took the chance to tour the chambers one last time, posing for a picture next to a painting by artist Chua Mia Tee, which she later posted on Facebook.

The NMPs also continued to question and debate, like it was any other day of business.

During yesterday's sitting, Ms Faizah Jamal and Ms Liew asked questions on fish farm waste and on the placement fees that foreign domestic workers pay, respectively.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan and private banker Tan Su Shan also joined in the debate on the new Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.

The law will give Singapore authority to target companies and other entities which either cause or condone fires that lead to haze.

From the seemingly minute and mundane to issues of national importance, the nine NMPs have demonstrated their ability to contribute to the discourse in Parliament.

Now, after they have served for 21/2 years, there will be a new slate of NMPs selected come next month. Of the nine, only businessman R. Dhinakaran and Prof Tan have opted to be considered for another term.

Coming after the hotly contested 2011 General Election, they joined the House in debating contentious issues such as the White Paper on Population and the Little India riot.

They have witnessed the Government making significant shifts in social policy such as health care and social security.

And they also celebrated former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's 90th birthday, in a poignant moment in the House.

Having sat in the press gallery and observed them during many of these occasions in Parliament, I think it's fitting to recognise them and their speeches which have left an impression on me.

With tongue-slightly-in- cheek, here are three awards:

The Super Passion Award goes to Ms Faizah.

Since the very first day in Parliament, she was single-minded in her focus on environmental issues.

From marine life to parks to trees, the environmentalist argued impassionedly for more attention to be paid to green issues, and was able to turn any matter in Singapore into one, inevitably, about our environment.

In the opening debate after the President's Address this May, she said: "All members of this House should raise environment issues in this House because it is the right thing to do, it is the mature and wise thing to do.

It is time to take back personal responsibility."As someone who is not so environmentally conscious, I was often left feeling rather guilty about leaving the light on too long, or the many plastic bags I used, after hearing her speak.

Yesterday, on the debate over the haze Bill, she continued to strike at our collective conscience. Quoting from a billboard she saw in London, she said: "You are not stuck in traffic. You are traffic."

The next honour is the Range Far And Wide Award.

It goes to Prof Tan, the law don, for having something to say on almost everything - even the attendance of MPs.

An expert on constitutional law and administrative law, just in the last two days, he again displayed that knack, by speaking on the National Library Board's saga over homosexuality-themed children's books, the crash of MH17 in Ukraine, the haze Bill, and a more obscure Bill on additional functions of the Attorney-General.

Prof Tan also made his mark in Parliament by unfailingly calling out his fellow MPs for not being present in the House for a quorum. Under the Constitution, a quorum of one-quarter of the total number of 87 MPs, excluding the Speaker, is needed for a Bill to be passed.

Last month, in one sitting he pointed out not once, but twice, the fact that a quorum was not reached, forcing the Speaker to ring the bells summoning the MPs into the chamber.

My last award is the Mirror Award. It goes to Mr Laurence Lien.

The mild-mannered Mr Lien surprised with his hard-hitting speeches that would often ask members of the House and the Government to look in the mirror, and focus on the bigger question of "what kind of country do we want to be?"

Many of his speeches urged the remaking of the social compact between the Government and citizens, and improving trust between the two.

In his first Parliament speech, he charged that Singapore was in a social recession, and proposed a Social Review Committee "to create a new shared vision and new social compact" for Singapore.

In one of his last speeches this May, referring to an ancient Judaic tradition to celebrate a Jubilee year with rest, he said to the House ahead of Singapore's own Jubilee year: "There is something worthwhile about resting, in the sense of taking a step back to reflect and ponder: What do we wish to become? How do we want to get there?"

In all seriousness, all nine NMPs have made meaningful contributions this term.

Now in its 24th year, the NMP scheme has attracted debate over its continued relevancy.

But this batch of NMPs has proven that, despite the criticisms, with them around, the House has certainly been the better for it.

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Malaysia: Hotspots in country and Indonesia reduce significantly

KOI KYE LEE New Straits Times 7 Aug 14;

PUTRAJAYA: The number of hotspots recorded in the country and Indonesia have reduced significantly.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri G. Palanivel said a total of 10 hotspots were identified in Sumatra and 15 in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

Previously, 48 and 32 hotspots were recorded in Sumatra and Kalimantan, Indonesia, respectively as identified on satellite images by the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC).

Palanivel said in a statement today that there was only one hotspot that was identified in the country, and it was at Sarawak.

He added that this hotspot would be investigated and necessary enforcement action would be taken.

As of 3pm, only 10 areas recorded moderate air quality on the Air Pollutant Index (API) readings.

Among these areas were Bakar Arang, Sungai Petani, Kedah (56); Kampung Air Putih, Taiping, Perak (53); ILP Miri, Sarawak (63); Sri Aman, Sarawak (67); and Batu Muda, Kuala Lumpur (64).

Palanivel reminded the public that open burning was prohibited with the exception of religious activities, cremations or barbecues.

He added that the Department of Environment (DOE) had detected 4,436 open burning in the country from January to Aug 6, and 324 cases were compounded while 115 cases were issued with warning notices.

It was also learnt that 45 open burning cases would be referred for further action.

Five of them have been registered in the Sessions Court.

Met Dept: Rain expected over weekend
The Star 8 Aug 14;

PETALING JAYA: Malaysians will get a brief respite from the dry spell plaguing the country – with relief expected from a typhoon passing nearby.

Malaysia Meteorological Depart­ment’s (MMD) deputy director-general Alui Bahari said more rainfall was expected this week, especially during the weekend.

Super Typhoon Halong, which has strengthened to 240kph, is expected to make landfall tomorrow at Shikoku, Japan’s smallest island.

“When a typhoon is gathering, the moisture in the air becomes concentrated towards the typhoon, which brings about a dry spell.

“The moisture will be released again once the typhoon has decayed, resulting in more rainfall,” explained Alui.

He said the region was susceptible to dry spells when typhoons originating in the Pacific Ocean start to form.

“As August is a peak season for typhoons, the country will experience alternate periods of dry and wet weather throughout the month,” he said.

Alui added that while rainfall was expected to increase this week, MMD would still be conducting cloud seeding operations over water catchment areas to boost dam levels.

Meanwhile, the air quality around the country improved slightly yesterday compared to Wednesday.

The air pollutant index (API) of Port Klang, which reached an “unhealthy” level of 115 on Wednesday, came down to a “moderate” level of 56 yesterday.

Other areas which recorded moderate readings yesterday included Miri (74), Sri Aman (67), Batu Muda in Kuala Lumpur (64) and Bakar Arang in Sungai Petani (56).

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Pollution triples mercury levels in ocean surface waters, study finds

Toxic metal threatens marine life as it accumulates faster in shallow layers than in deep sea due to human activity
Fiona Harvey 6 Aug 14;

The amount of mercury near the surface of many of the world’s oceans has tripled as the result of our polluting activities, a new study has found, with potentially damaging implications for marine life as the result of the accumulation of the toxic metal.

Mercury is accumulating in the surface layers of the seas faster than in the deep ocean, as we pour the element into the atmosphere and seas from a variety of sources, including mines, coal-fired power plants and sewage. Mercury is toxic to humans and marine life, and accumulates in our bodies over time as we are exposed to sources of it.

Since the industrial revolution, we have tripled the mercury content of shallow ocean layers, according to the letter published in the peer-review journal Nature on Thursday. Mercury can be widely dispersed across the globe when it is deposited in water and the air, the authors said, so even parts of the globe remote from industrial sources can quickly suffer elevated levels of the toxic material.

For several years, scientists have warned that pregnant women and small children should limit their consumption of certain fish, including swordfish and king mackerel, because toxic metals including mercury and lead have been accumulating in these species to a degree that made their over-consumption dangerous to human health. Pregnant women are particularly at risk because the metals can accumulate in the growing foetus, and in sufficient quantities can cause serious developmental disorders.

The scientists behind Thursday’s letter to Nature, including researchers from the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the US, stopped short of warning on the dangers to human health from our pouring of mercury into the oceans. However, they said, further research could yield more advice on the potential impacts: “This information may aid our understanding of the processes and the depths at which inorganic mercury species are converted into toxic methyl mercury and subsequently bioaccumulated in marine food webs.”

Simon Boxall, lecturer on ocean and Earth science at the University of Southampton, said it was “hard to say” from the research how much damage had already been done to marine life, including edible fish species, and how quickly any such damage would become apparent. “I would not stop eating ocean fish as a result of this,” he said. “But it is a good indicator of how much impact we are having on the marine environment. It is an alarm call for the future.”

Deep waters in the North Atlantic showed more mercury content than similarly deep waters of the South Atlantic and the Southern and Pacific Oceans, the authors of the report said. Mercury at the surface will disperse to lower layers in time, but this can take decades. However, the process of the damage to marine life becoming apparent can be faster in some areas, such as those closer to the poles, than areas nearer the equator, said Dr Boxall.

The north pole and the Arctic circle, because of the winds and ocean currents, is an area where many pollutants released elsewhere across the globe accumulate: top predators such as polar bears have been found to have high levels of toxins in their bodies as a result. These animals are sometimes eaten by indigenous Arctic peoples.

“In the Arctic and Antarctic, you will be starting to see some of this now,” he said. “But with deep-sea fishing in the tropics you will not see it yet, but you will see it within a hundred years.”

Mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants can be reduced by using chemical filters, but while this is increasingly the norm in the rich world many developing countries have yet to catch up. Another source of the metal is from sewage. Developed countries have means to reduce this impact, but again developing countries are less likely to have in place the treatment systems necessary.

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