Best of our wild blogs: 31 Dec 15

Singapore's Hidden Treasures - A 2015 Collection
Macro Photography in Singapore

Removal of long driftnet at Sisters’ Island Marine Park (26 Nov 2015)
Project Driftnet Singapore

Summary of 2015 postings
Singapore Bird Group

50+ companies being investigated or punished for Indonesia’s haze crisis
Mongabay Environmental News

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Malaysia, Johor: SAJ ends four-month-long water rationing

The Star 31 Dec 15;

JOHOR BARU: The four-month-long scheduled water supply to Pasir Gudang, Masai and parts of Johor Baru ended yesterday after the Sungai Layang dam level improved.

Water concessionaire SAJ Holdings Sdn Bhd announced that the consistent rainfall and other initiatives taken to overcome the crisis had been effective.

The company’s Corporate Communications Head Jamaluddin Jamil said the decision to end the scheduled water supply exercise was based on a detailed study on the rainfall pattern.

“Apart from that, the channelling of raw water between Cabang Tiram and Layang dam as well as between Sungai Johor and Layang dam, has been effective.

“The efficiency and capacity of the Sultan Iskandar water treatment plant, which treats raw water and channels to a network of pipe system, was also taken into account,” he said in a statement here yesterday.

Jamaluddin added that although the dam’s water level of 21.30m was below the critical level of 23.50m, SAJ was optimistic that the existing initiatives taken would be able to meet the current demand.

“We have also taken into consideration the coming public holidays and the start of the school year preparations and are optimistic that we will be able to manage the demands,” he said.

But Jamaluddin said the scheduled water supply exercise would resumed if there was a continuous drought.

“This is why we strongly advise consumers to continue using water wisely to avoid wastage, so that the water level in the Sungai Layang dam can last longer,” said Jamaluddin.

He also said that the exercise in Mukim Tanjung Surat, Mukim Pantai Timur and Mukim Pengerang in Kota Tinggi would continue until Jan 15.

“Although the transfer of raw water between Sungai Papan and Sungai Lebam dam is a success, we still have not seen a significant change in water levels,” said Jamaluddin.

For details, call 1 800 88 7474 (SAJ Info Centre), SMS to 019-772 7474 or email

Regular water supply returns after four months of scheduled supply
KATHLEEN ANN KILI The Star 30 Dec 15;

JOHOR BARU: A four-month scheduled water supply that started in August in several parts of Johor finally ended, bringing relief to thousands of people.

Water concessionaire SAJ Holdings Sdn Bhd (SAJ) corporate communications head Jamaluddin Jamil said that that water taps would run freely in Pasir Gudang, Masai and some parts Johor Baru after the Sungai Layang dam started recording positive water levels.

He said that the water levels have been showing positive trends following the consistent rainfall and the effectiveness of other initiatives taken to overcome the crisis.

“The decision to end the scheduled water supply exercise was based on a detailed study on the rainfall pattern besides the effectiveness of channelling raw water between Cabang Tiram and Layang dam as well as between Sungai Johor and Layang dam.

“The efficiency and capacity of the Sultan Iskandar water treatment plant, which treats raw water and channels to a network of pipe system was also taken into account,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

No more scheduled water supply for Pasir Gudang, Masai and JB
CHUAH BEE KIM New Straits Times 30 Dec 15;

JOHOR BARU: Water utility company SAJ Holdings Sdn Bhd (SAJ) has lifted the Scheduled Water Supply exercise for Pasir Gudang, Masai and part of Johor Baru after increased rainfall and water channeling works improved levels at the Sungai Layang dam.

SAJ Head of Corporate Communications Jamaluddin Jamil said these and the other initiatives taken by the state government have also contributed to the positive trend in the water level.

In a statement today, he said the decision to lift the Water Supply Schedule was made after a detailed study of the rainfall distribution pattern indicated that Sungai Layang Dam has the capacity to provide sufficient raw water to the Sultan Iskandar water treatment plant.

"Although the level in the dam registered at 21.30m, which is still below the critical level of 23.50m, SAJ is optimistic that the initiatives undertaken by the state government will meet the needs of consumers who are preparing for the holidays and going back to school.

"However, the raw water at the dam is still vulnerable to dry weather which is expected to hit the country between January and March next year," he said, advising consumers to continue to be prudent in water usage.

Residents of these areas have been enduring scheduled water supply, in which water supply comes once every three days, since August.

More recently, SAJ supplied water to these areas for a duration of 36 hours followed by another 36 hours without water supply.

Meanwhile, consumers in the Tanjung Surat, Pantai Timur and Pengerang sub-districts in Kota Tinggi who are getting water supply from the Sungai Lebam dam will have to continue with scheduled water supply until January 15.

Jamaluddin said this will continue until the transfer of raw water from Sungai Papan to the Sungai Lebam Dam is successfully carried out.

"The scheduled water supply exercise will halt once the water level is stabilised," he said.

South Johor folks welcome end of water rationing
KATHLEEN ANN KILI The Star 10 Jan 15;

JOHOR BARU: Residents are relieved that their water taps are running normally again after four months of scheduled water supply due to low water levels at two main dams in south Johor.

Housewife G. Saroja, 58, from Permas Jaya, breathed a sigh of relief after learning about the end of the water rationing exercise on Wednesday night.

“It has been a challenging four months as we struggled to maintain sufficient water for the family, especially with my three young grandchildren around. The youngest is three years old and needs clean water for milk every four hours.

“We had to buy huge containers to store water and allocate a special one just for consumption,” she said yesterday.

Saroja said she never had to endure such a long period of water rationing before and hoped that some form of compensation would be given to those affected.

Nurul Azrinajwa Mat Khairi, 22, who lives along Jalan Masjid in Kampung Plentong Baru, said she had difficulty doing her dishes and laundry with the scheduled water supply.

“Sometimes the water supply did not follow the schedule, so we always had to save extra,” said the seamstress.

Yet storing more water was not practical.

“It could cause wastage – the water could not be kept too long as mosquitoes would start to breed,” said Nurul Azrinajwa.

The owner of the Kim Long Fruits Supplier shop, who wanted to be known only as Chok, 48, said he had spent hundreds of ringgit on containers to store water for his goods as well as for home use.

“I spent almost RM500 on four 70-litre containers for my shop and a dozen 15-litre ones for my home above my shoplot.

“I really hope SAJ (Syarikat Air Johor) will compensate us for the inconvenience and our extra expenses,” he said.

Nevertheless, Chok was grateful that SAJ halted the rationing exercise on Wednesday as soon as the water level showed improvement at the Sungai Layang dam.

The four-month-long exercise affected those in Pasir Gudang, Masai and parts of Johor Baru.

The Johor Public Works, Rural and Regional Development Commit­tee chairman Datuk Hasni Moham­mad had said that domestic water consumers affected by the exercise would enjoy special incentives to be decided by the state authorities.

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Indonesia suffers setback in fight against haze after suit rejected


Indonesia's efforts to penalize the companies allegedly responsible for its annual forest fires suffered a setback on Wednesday after a judge rejected a $565 million lawsuit against a pulp and paper firm.

Indonesia brought a civil case in a South Sumatra court against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH), a supplier to Asia Pulp and Paper, one of the world's biggest pulp and paper companies.

The $565 million in damages would have been the largest financial award ever levied against a company accused of forest burning activities in Indonesia with the intent of sending a strong message to those responsible for the annual haze.

"The lawsuit against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau is rejected because the evidence is not proven," said presiding judge Parlas Nababan. He did not comment any further and then ended the court proceedings.

Indonesia and the wider Southeast Asian region suffered for months this year from haze caused by smouldering forest and peatland fires. The fires were largely located on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo and climate officials described them as a crime against humanity as pollution levels soared.

The government alleged that BMH failed to prevent the recurrence of fires in 2014 and 2015 on about 20,000 hectares of land in the Ogan Komering Ilir region of Sumatra, Eka Widodo Soegiri, a spokesman at the Environment and Forestry Ministry told Reuters.

An appeal to the court's verdict will be made within two weeks, said Rasio Ridho Sani, director general for law enforcement at the Forestry Ministry, after the hearing.

"The decision is against the people's will," said Sani. "We had presented the facts from the field that there was indeed forest burning in the mentioned location. The fact on the field also show that the company doesn't have adequate equipment to prevent and control the forest fire in the mentioned location."

The government's evidence was far-fetched, BMH's lawyer Maurice, who like many Indonesians uses one name, told reporters after the ruling, citing the extent of the hotspots and the sampling process that the government used.

Environmental groups cautioned that Wednesday's ruling will likely frustrate other pending lawsuits.

"This will be a bad precedent related to other similar lawsuit against the forest fires perpetrators in the future," said Hadi Jatmiko, director at Friends of the Earth Indonesia, which was involved in monitoring BMH.

Indonesia is still pursuing the companies seen as responsible even as the forest fires have eased because of monsoon rains. The government has sanctioned 23 companies because of the fires, with three having land-use or environmental permits revoked, 16 having permits suspended and four issued "government force sanctions."

The government says it will also review laws that allow smallholder farmers to burn, ban peatland development and take back all burned land within a company's concession area.

Green and palm industry groups have warned that the forest fires, which cost Indonesia about $16 billion in 2015, will flare up next year unless the government issues new regulations on forest clearing.

(Additional reporting by Bernadette Christina Munthe; Reporting by Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja in Jakarta and Amanillah in Palembang; Writing by Michael Taylor; Editing by Christian Schmollinger)

In Bid for Justice Over Forest Fires, Government Falls at First Hurdle
Basten Gokkon Jakarta Globe 30 Dec 15;

Jakarta. The Indonesian government has lost a Rp 7.8 trillion ($565 million) lawsuit brought against a pulp and paper company accused of setting fires that razed 20,000 hectares of land in South Sumatra last year.

Bumi Mekar Hijau, a subsidiary of the Sinar Mas conglomerate, is the first of dozens of pulp and palm oil companies being pursued by the Environment and Forestry Ministry for slash-and-burn clearing. Activists say Wednesday’s judgment could set a poor precedent for efforts by the government to go after perpetrators whose fires destroyed more than two million hectares of forest this year, generated health-threatening haze over vast swaths of Sumatra and Kalimantan, and led to record levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

In its ruling, the Palembang District Court declared that the Environment Ministry did not have a valid case against Bumi Mekar Hijau. Judge Parlas Nababan also ordered the ministry to pay Rp 10 million in legal costs to the company.

In October, the ministry filed suit against Bumi Mekar Hijau, which owns pulpwood concessions in South Sumatra’s Ogan Komering Ilir district, demanding that the company pay the state Rp 7.8 trillion for damages it allegedly incurred by illegally setting 20,000 hectares of land ablaze.

It also named the company’s executives as respondents in the suit, which meant they could have faced criminal charges carrying prison sentences of up to 10 years.

Rasio Ridho Sani, the director general for law enforcement at the Environment Ministry, told reporters after the hearing that his office would appeal against the ruling.

“We are fighting for the justice for the people who suffered from the haze and forest fires,” he said on Wednesday as quoted by

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) also expressed its disappointment at the ruling.

“Legal order and justice for the environment and the people have been destroyed,” the group wrote on its Facebook page.

The case against Bumi Mekar Hijau was seen as a major test of Indonesia’s law enforcement institutions against companies accused of slash-and-burn forest clearing, in large part because of the high profile of holding group Sinar Mas, which has interests in pulp and paper, palm oil, property and banking.

The fires this year alone cost the Indonesian government Rp 221 trillion, or 1.9 percent of its GDP, in just five months, according to the World Bank – a figure higher than the cost of rebuilding Aceh after the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

PT Bumi Mekar Hijau found not guilty by Indonesian court of causing forest fires in Sumatra
In its ruling, the Palembang District Court rejected all claims by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry against the company, saying there was no damage done to the environment as a result of the forest fires on the land.
Saifulbahri Ismail Channel NewsAsia 30 Dec 15;

SOUTH SUMATRA, Indonesia: A Palembang District Court in South Sumatra has rejected all claims made by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau, for allegedly causing forest fires in South Sumatra.

The Ministry had demanded a fine of more than US$570 million for damage made to the environment and for its recovery.

PT Bumi Mekar Hijau, a subsidiary of Asia Pulp and Paper, one of the largest pulp and paper companies in the world, was suspected of causing fires on 20,000 hectares of concession land in Ogan Kemering Ilir, South Sumatra in 2014.

In its ruling, the court's three judges said there was no damage done to the environment as a result of the forest fires on that land, and it could still be used for planting. In addition, the judges said the Indonesian government had not experienced losses as a result of the forest fires.

The court also ordered Jakarta to pay the costs of the proceedings, amounting to about US$700.

"The implications are extraordinary. In future, those responsible for forest fires and corporations will feel they can’t be touched by the law, and their bad practices will not change," said Khalisah Khalid, Head of Research and Resource Development, Indonesian Forum for the Environment.

"When the corporation’s bad practices can’t improve, the further implication is on ecological disaster. Haze will continue to happen, and the victims will continue to increase.”

Asia Pulp and Paper was one of several companies that had its products taken off the shelves in Singapore after the National Environment Agency (NEA) launched an investigation in September into the company's role in the forest fires in Indonesia.

The NEA had sent a 'preventive measures' notice to the company asking it to deploy fire-fighting personnel to extinguish or prevent the spread of any fire on its land.

The 2015 forest fires are estimated to have cost Indonesia's economy US$16 billion, more than double the sum spent on rebuilding Aceh after the 2004 tsunami, according to the World Bank.

- CNA/yt

Indonesia to appeal rejection of US$565m haze lawsuit
Environment ministry spokesman Eka Widodo Sugiri said the government would file an appeal against the court's decision within two weeks.
Channel NewsAsia 31 Dec 15;

JAKARTA: The Indonesian government will appeal a court's rejection of a US$565 million lawsuit against a pulp and paper company accused of failing to prevent fires that blanketed Southeast Asia in toxic haze, an official said Thursday (Dec 31).

The court on Sumatra island Wednesday dismissed the civil suit brought by authorities against Bumi Mekar Hijau, a supplier to global giant Asia Pulp and Paper, over fires on plantation land in 2014, saying there was insufficient evidence.

The haze-belching fires occur every year as land is cleared using slash-and-burn methods to make way for palm oil and pulp and paper plantations on Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo island.

The damages would have been the biggest ever levied against a firm over such burning activities in Indonesia, and environmentalists said the rejection was a major setback in efforts to take on those behind the annual haze outbreaks.

Environment ministry spokesman Eka Widodo Sugiri said the government would file an appeal against the court's decision within two weeks.

"Our nation's dignity was disturbed, we received complaints from neighbouring countries," Sugiri told AFP.

Plantation companies are responsible for ensuring fires do not break out on their land, but blazes still occur frequently. Major firms have "zero-burn" policies and typically insist fires inside their concessions start outside before spreading in, and are started by people not working for them.

Authorities accused Bumi Mekar Hijau of failing to prevent widespread fires in a concession in South Sumatra province last year, according to state-run Antara news agency.

The company is also being investigated over this year's fires, with its operations frozen in December.

The 2015 blazes, which occurred mainly in September and October, were the worst for years, prompting thousands to fall ill, and leading to flight cancellations and school closures across the region.

Bumi Mekar Hijau was one of 20 firms who were punished in an unprecedented move over the blazes. Activist Riko Kurniawan, from The Indonesian Forum for the Environment, said the lawsuit rejection set a "bad precedent".

"We really regret the decision of the judges who rejected the lawsuit, it is another failed attempt to seek justice for victims of the haze," he said.

The haze crisis also caused huge damage to the Indonesian economy, with the World Bank estimating the cost at US$16 billion - more than double the sum spent on rebuilding Aceh province after the devastating 2004 tsunami.

- AFP/yt

Court ruling a blow to Jakarta's fight against haze
Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, Straits Times AsiaOne 31 Dec 15;

A district court in South Sumatra province has thrown out a government lawsuit that demanded pulpwood plantation company Bumi Mekar Hijau pay 7.8 trillion rupiah (S$797 million) for clearing land by illegal burning last year.

Mr Pharlis Nababan, the chair of the three-judge panel in the Palembang district court, ruled yesterday that there was no evidence showing Bumi Mekar Hijau purposely started fires to clear land, which then spread and led to environmental damage.

The ruling was a judicial blow to the government's effort to deter future haze culprits, analysts say.

As deterrence, the government has the authority only to give administrative punishment such as suspending the licences of errant companies, while monetary fines must be decided by courts.

Last week, 16 plantation companies, including Bumi Mekar Hijau, had their business licences suspended and three others ordered to stop operations for good after a government probe found that they were responsible for illegal fires that caused this year's haze crisis which hit the region including Singapore.

Mr Rasio Ridho Sani, director- general of law enforcement at the Environment and Forestry Ministry, told reporters in Palembang after the verdict that the government will appeal against the ruling.

"For the sake of the people who suffered from the haze, we will appeal. The facts on the ground clearly showed us there was fire on the company's concession, and the company did not have adequate equipment to prevent as well as to contain fire," Mr Rasio said.

Indonesian environment law says companies must douse a fire within their concessions, regardless of where the fire started.

Mr Maurice, a lawyer representing Bumi Mekar Hijau, told reporters: "The ruling objectively reflects what the conditions were on the ground, all facts and experts' testimonies during the trial."

Bumi Mekar Hijau had supplied raw material to Asia Pulp and Paper, a unit of Sinar Mas group.

The Environment and Forestry Ministry had alleged that Bumi Mekar Hijau caused fires in 20,000ha in Ogan Komering Ilir, South Sumatra last year. The ministry asked the court to order the company to pay a fine of 2.6 trillion rupiah for damaging the environment and 5.2 trillion rupiah for costs needed for the recovery.

The trial started in July this year.

The ministry has been suing plantation companies for causing land and forest fires since 2013. Environmentalists say that plantation companies in Indonesia often resort to illegal slash-and-burn methods to clear land, as hiring excavators to do the same job would cost at least seven times as much.

"The ruling does not serve justice to the environment and the people who have been suffering because of the haze," Mr Zenzi Suhadi, a forest and plantation campaigner with the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said.

Mr Muhnur Satyahaprabu, the legal and executive policy manager at Walhi, said the judges do not seem to understand the vast impact of fire on peatland. He regretted the fact that none of the judges hearing the case has an environment certification.

Court finds no damages after forest fires
Hans Nicholas Jong, The Jakarta Post 31 Dec 15;

The government’s efforts to bring justice to companies allegedly responsible for the annual forest fires in the country have suffered a setback after the Palembang District Court in South Sumatra rejected Rp 7.8 trillion (US$570 million) lawsuit against a supplier to Sinar Mas Group, one of Indonesia’s largest conglomerates.

Delivering the decision on Wednesday, the court said that the evidence collected in the case against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH, failed prove its alleged criminality in the burning of 20,000 hectares of its concession in Ogan Komering Ilir, South Sumatra, in 2014.

“The lawsuit against Bumi Mekar Hijau has been rejected because the evidence could not prove whether the party was guilty,” presiding judge Parlas Nababan said.

He reasoned that BMH was still able to plant acacia trees on the concession after it was burned, which according to him meant there must have been no environmental damage.

The lawsuit lodged by the Environment and Forestry Ministry sought Rp 7.8 trillion in damages, which would have been the largest financial award ever levied against a company accused of forest burning activities in the country with the intent of sending a strong message to those responsible for the annual haze.

Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) South Sumatra chapter director Hadi Jatmiko said that the reasoning behind the verdict was illogical.

“I don’t know what the judges were thinking by exonerating BMH. This reasoning is so misguided and shows that the judges actually don’t understand [how to handle] forest fires cases inside companies’ concessions,” he said on Wednesday.

According to Hadi, it is only natural for a company to grow acacia trees after its concession is burned.

“Because the truth is that massive fires happen inside concessions to cut the costs of land clearing and to shorten the planting period,” he said.

Furthermore, the judges failed to take into account the air pollution caused by the fire in the company’s concession, Hadi added.

“Environmental damage shouldn’t only be seen from the damage to land. The fire caused the Air Pollution Standard Index [ISPU] to reach a hazardous level and that’s enough to prove that there was environmental damage,” said he.

The ministry’s law enforcement director general, Rasio Ridho Sani, meanwhile, said the fact that BMH was not able to keep its concession from getting burned should be enough to punish the company.

“We see that a concession permit holder should be held responsible should a fire occur inside its location, whatever the cause. However, the panel of judges did not take into account the facts of the case. The fact is that fires did happen and the company did not have adequate facilities to prevent and manage forest fires,” he said on Wednesday.

Walhi legal and executive policy manager Muhnur Satyahaprabu said that the decision might have been different had the ministry demanded that the trial be presided by judges holding environmental licenses.

“Cases like this require good understanding of regulations related to the environment,” he said on Wednesday.

The decision sets a bad precedent for similar cases that have yet to go to trial, with the government still pursuing other companies allegedly responsible for forest fires that have eased on account of monsoon rains. The government has sanctioned 23 companies over the fires, with three having land-use or environmental permits revoked, 16 having permits suspended and four issued “government force sanctions.”

“If the lawsuit filed by the ministry against BMH in 2014 was rejected, then what about bigger cases in 2015?” Hadi said.

Rasio said that he would file a case appeal within two weeks.

“The decision goes against the people’s will,” said he.

After loss in forest fire case, government to file appeal 31 Dec 15;

The government has expressed its desire to file an appeal to a higher court following its loss at the Palembang District Court in relation to a forest fire case against PT Bumi Mekar Hijau (BMH) on Wednesday. The loss foiled the government’s hopes for compensation of Rp 2.6 trillion (US$188.27 million) and a restoration fund amounting to Rp. 5.2 trillion.

“We will file an appeal and we have frozen the company’s environmental licence,” said Rasio Ridho Sani, the Environment and Forestry Ministry’s director general for law enforcement, on Wednesday as reported by

Judges on the Palembang District Court rejected the Environment and Forestry Ministry’s lawsuit against BMH accusing the company of burning down forests and causing losses in biodiversity and land mass. The lawsuit was submitted by the ministry in February and the first hearing was held in March.

In his ruling, judge Parlas Nababan said that the plaintiff could not prove the scale of state losses.

“Biodiversity loss could not be proven,” said Parlas at the court on Wednesday.

The judges also believed that BMH was not directly responsible for the forest fires because the company had appointed a third party to cultivate the land.

Before the issuance of the verdict, the judges conducted a field trial at BMH’s concession in Ogan Komering Ilir district, South Sumatra, in November.

Rasio expressed his disappointment over the verdict, emphasizing that the government had submitted sufficient evidence to warrant a victory. Rasio argued that the decision of the judges was not in line with the facts.

He added that the government would keep trying to prevent forest fires in the country.

Companies like BMH, he said, destroyed the environment and public health. (cal/bbn)(+)

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Dengue cases hit 377 last week – highest weekly total this year

Yuen Sin, Straits Times AsiaOne 30 Dec 15;

The first-ever vaccine against dengue fever, which affects up to 400 million people per year, will be publicly available for the first time after being cleared for use in Mexico, French manufacturer Sanofi said on December 9, 2015.

There were 377 dengue cases reported last week, the highest weekly total this year, the National Environment Agency (NEA) said yesterday.

The end of the year usually sees fewer infections, but cases have been on an unusual rise in recent months. A weekly high of 361 was reported just two weeks ago.

In a Facebook post yesterday, Senior Minister of State for Health and the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor warned the public to "stay vigilant against dengue".

The NEA said warmer than usual year-end weather caused by the El Nino phenomenon could result in shorter mosquito breeding periods and shorter incubation times for the dengue virus.

While the number of dengue cases in the first 10 months of this year fell by about half compared with the same period last year, the Aedes mosquito population has doubled.

The DENV-2 serotype, which had been the dominant strain before 2013 until it was replaced by DENV-1, has now returned.

Dengue cases due to the DENV-2 serotype have increased, accounting for more than half of all cases here, according to the NEA.

Weekly numbers of more than 800 have been seen at times in 2013 and last year.

But this recent surge is worrying as a change in the main circulating dengue virus may be an early indicator of a future outbreak, unless measures are taken to suppress the Aedes mosquito population.

There are four strains of dengue and getting infected with one does not mean you are immune to the others. Many people infected recently could become infected again with a new strain.

Dr Khor urged the public to work together to "deny the Aedes mosquitoes their breeding habitats".

There were 75 active dengue clusters as of Monday, with 152 cases recorded in the largest cluster of Tampines Avenue 3 and Avenue 4, and Tampines Street 81 and Street 91.

Four people have died of dengue fever this year - three in recent months.

On Dec 9, a 59-year-old woman who lived in Upper Thomson died at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. On Nov 28, a 79-year-old man died a few days after being admitted to Tan Tock Seng Hospital. The other victims were a 60-year-old woman from India who was visiting her son here in September, and a 53-year-old woman from China who died in February.

A total of 10,142 dengue cases were reported as of Dec 12. In the whole of last year, there were 18,335 cases with five deaths. The NEA said people infected with dengue should apply mosquito repellent to prevent mosquitoes from biting them and infecting others, and that those with symptoms should consult a doctor.

Members of the public are also advised to practise the "five-step mozzie wipeout", referring to actions to remove stagnant water to prevent mosquito breeding. These include inverting buckets and plant pot plates, and regularly changing water in vases.

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Harnessing social media to track potential disease outbreaks

Channel NewsAsia looks at how social media can provide reliable data in time of crisis, and how information found on various platforms can be used to track potential outbreaks locally.
Imelda Saad, Channel NewsAsia 30 Dec 15;

SINGAPORE: Preliminary views from the taskforce looking to enhance the response to infectious disease outbreaks in Singapore included better use of data analytics and IT systems.

Data analytics involves the examining of raw data to discover patterns and information.

With the proliferation of online networking sites, a team of Singapore researchers said social media can provide a rich source of reliable data in times of crisis, and it is looking into harnessing such information to track potential outbreaks locally.

Singapore researchers were prompted to embark on a study of the bird flu outbreak in China back in 2013 when asked if social media platforms would be able to help in battling the spread of an infectious disease like bird flu. Results of the study were published early this year.

The researchers collated information from Chinese social networking site Weibo and compared it with the information streaming in from traditional sources such as the Chinese health authorities, the World Health Organization and news websites.

The team found that social media could indeed provide reliable and timely information in times of crisis. The team managed to track the spread of bird flu in China and pick up first-hand reports about the disease by trawling cyberspace.

It was revealed that Weibo was significantly faster in reporting new cases compared to conventional public health channels. On average, new cases were reported on Weibo about an hour before the Chinese health authority's website.

"We found that the contributors to the early reporters were actually the local news agencies. They have dedicated personnel to post on Weibo even before they release (information) to conventional newspapers, print media,” said Dr Yang Yinping, Capability Group Manager, Social Intelligence, Institute of High Performance Computing.

Information from the man in the street also provided useful epidemiological information about the disease, such as patient symptoms or lifestyle history.

"For example, there was actually a patient who is a vegetarian. That means this person shouldn't eat chicken, but he still got infected. So this is important lifestyle information for epidemiologists and clinical professionals to take into account, because this basically means the human-to-human transmission started,” said Dr Yang.

Dr Yang added that the system can also help health authorities assess public sentiment to formulate policies.

But with a barrage of information online, researchers also found it a challenge sifting through what was real and what was not, so filtering techniques were used to verify information.

The team is taking its research one step further. Over the past one and a half years, it has been working on an almost-real time information gathering and response facilitation system that can help authorities in Singapore track any potential disease outbreak.

- CNA/dl

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Malaysia: Massive protected area in Sabah

RUBEN SARIO The Star 31 Dec 15;

KOTA KINABALU: Sabah will have one of the nation’s single largest conservation area which is nearly 24 times the size of Penang island.

State Forestry Department director Datuk Sam Mannan said the con­­servation area of nearly 700,000ha would encompass Da­­num Valley, Maliau Basin and Imbak Canyon.

He said this was made possible after the state government upgraded more than 112,000ha of bio­diversity rich lowland forests to Class I protection forest reserves last month.

“We have what is arguably the biggest totally protected areas in one conservation block in Malaysia,” he said.

Mannan said this conservation block also included 70,000ha of the Kuamut Forest Reserve.

“That area is also being assessed for a carbon offset project,” he added.

The remaining portion of the Kuamut forest reserve totalling just over 47,000ha, where parts were undergoing reduced impact logging harvesting, would eventually be added to this conservation region.

Operations there would cease on Dec 31, 2018, and this area would then become part of the further enlarged protected area, he said.

Mannan said Sabah’s totally protected area was now nearly 1.8 million hectares or 24% of the state’s landmass.

“This is in compliance with the Government’s policy to have 30% of Sabah under its totally protected area by 2025,” he said.

He said Sabah’s conservation areas had increased significantly since 2003 when Datuk Seri Musa Aman took over as chief minister.

The exemplary actions of the state government, driven by the chief minister, would give Sabah a unique advantage in world tropical forest management, he added.

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Indonesia: After decades of exploitation, Java on brink of ecological crisis

The Jakarta Post 30 Dec 15;

A group of concerned scientists, researchers, environmentalists and agrarian activists launched a petition on Tuesday calling on the government to take aggressive action to stop what they deemed the ongoing ecological destruction in Java.

The group urged President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to instruct the state-owned enterprises and environment and forestry ministries to review the environmental management feasibility of all cement factories, gold and sand mining, as well as all power plant companies operating in Java. The group blamed the rapid deterioration of the environment in Java on the industrial activities.

The group also called on the Agrarian and Spatial Planning Ministry to review a number of regional spatial plans (RTRW) that it said accommodated infrastructure projects without considering the principles of environmental justice.

One of 248 signatories of the petition, Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) senior researcher Soeryo Adiwibowo, said that industrial activities had led to steep forest cover decline in Java, from 15 percent in the early 1990s to 3 percent currently.

Soeryo said the forest loss had not only led to disasters such as flooding, prolonged drought and forest fires but also land conflicts, which mostly involved private firms and indigenous people.

“The biggest contributors to our ecological crisis are economic and political decisions that ignore environmental consequences,” Soeryo said.

Eko Cahyono, executive director of the Bogor-based Sajogyo Institute agrarian study center, said that the cement industry could bring about a catastrophic ecological crisis, especially in places such as Mount Kendeng Utara in Central Java, where the operations of a cement company could impact its surrounding regencies — Rembang, Pati and Grobogan.

A lower court in Pati ordered the closure of a local cement factory in November, effectively halting the limestone mining operations of PT Sahabat Mulia Sakti.

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Malaysia: Countries Must Resolve To Put An End To Choking Smog - Green Activist

Bernama 30 Dec 15;

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 30 (Bernama) -- Countries in the region should resolve in the new year to put a stop to the seasonal smog and haze that has been occurring over the years.

Green activist Datuk Seri Ang Lai Soon said this should be the New Year 2016 resolution of the Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean governments - countries mostly affected by the haze - to protect the health of their citizens.

He noted that the problem arose due to the thoughtlessness and inconsideration of some quarters driven by material benefits.

"Establish a group from the nations effected, or those equally concerned, to see that this pernicious practice is stopped once and for all," he said in his 2016 New Year message.

The activist from Sarawak was alluding to the annual large scale land clearing activity that spawns thick haze, choking huge swathes of the region.

Ang said countries with experience in tackling bush fires such as Australia as well as Canada would be ideal to be invited to join in what he described as "this humanitarian mission to help millions of people's health from being damaged by this deliberate man-made disaster".

He said equally important was that such a mission would help protect the much abused and fragile environment and improve the region's economic outlook.

"The success of this exercise will be this region's constructive contribution to the recent historic Paris climate accord, and the greatest gift ever to the millions of innocent people," he said.

"This wanton destruction by man-made fires of the forests and the collateral damage to their flora and fauna must be stopped permanently," he added.

This, he said, called for governments of the affected countries to have strong political will, courage and determination to succeed.


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Illegal pangolin trade in Myanmar booming

TRAFFIC 31 Dec 15;

Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 31st December 2015—Illegal trade in live pangolins, their meat, and their scales in the Special Development Zone of Mong La, Myanmar, is booming according to a study co-authored by TRAFFIC published this week in Global Ecology and Conservation.

Surveys of Mong La’s morning market, wildlife trophy shops and wild meat restaurants by the paper’s authors during four visits from 2006 to 2015 found 42 bags of scales, 32 whole skins, 16 foetuses or pangolin parts in wine, and 27 whole pangolins openly for sale, clearly indicating this town is as a significant hub of the pangolin trade.

The origin of the pangolins offered for sale in Mong La appears to include pangolins sourced from Myanmar itself, as well as from neighbouring countries, and potentially Africa—ivory, rhino horn and hippo teeth from Africa have all been observed in recent years in this market.

Myanmar is an important transit country for the smuggling of pangolins and other wildlife. Mong La is situated in the Shan State of Myanmar on the border with China, and caters exclusively for the Chinese market, where demand for pangolins is high.

Data from 29 seizures in Myanmar and 23 from neighbouring countries (Thailand, India, China) implicating Myanmar as a source of pangolins or as a transit point for pangolins sourced in other countries, in the period 2010–2014, reveal that a combined total of 4339 kg of scales and 518 whole pangolins have been seized, according to the study.

Pangolin scales on sale, Mong La © Chris R Shepherd / TRAFFIC
Trade in pangolins, their parts of their derivatives is prohibited by law in Myanmar. Furthermore, all Asian pangolin species are listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) with a zero-quota which means international trade is not allowed.

“Ongoing demand and unopposed wildlife crime networks are pushing all four of Asia’s pangolins towards the brink of extinction” said Dr Chris R. Shepherd, Regional Director of TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia. “Collaboration between governments in Asia is needed to reduce cross-border trade significantly, to prevent these amazing species from being lost forever.”

TRAFFIC strongly urges the Myanmar Government to liaise with regional authorities to tackle the illegal pangolin trade and to resolve the illicit cross-border trade of wildlife.

The open-access paper, Pangolin trade in the Mong La wildlife market and the role of Myanmar in the smuggling of pangolins into China (PDF, 1.6 MB) is published in Global Ecology and Conservation.

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Australia evacuates three coastal regions as fire risk grows

Channel NewsAsia 31 Dec 15;

SYDNEY: Hundreds of residents and holidaymakers along southern Australia's popular Great Ocean Road were evacuated on Thursday as hot, windy weather threatened to recharge bushfires that destroyed more than 100 homes on Christmas Day.

Residents in three coastal towns in the popular holiday area were advised to leave their homes as temperatures were forecast to reach a high of almost 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). The hot summer weather threatened to escalate fires that have been burning for almost two weeks.

"The local community has listened to the best of advice and will leave their homes because on such a challenging day, with that fire still active, so close to them, it's not safe for them nor is it safe for those who have been called on to protect them," Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters.

The fires were started by a lightning strike on Dec. 19 and continue to burn and spread. The Country Fire Authority estimates the blazes have burnt out more than 2,500 hectares (6,175 acres) of land.

Authorities estimate that 116 homes were destroyed by the fires on Christmas Day.

Once the immediate threat has passed, some relief could be on the horizon for residents with temperatures forecast to drop in the coming days. Isolated showers are also predicted for some parts of the southern coast.

The Great Ocean Road is one of Australia's biggest tourist draws with its spectacular scenery and unusual offshore rock formations. Parts of the road remained closed to traffic on Thursday during what is typically one of its busiest times of the year.

In 2009, Victoria witnessed Australia's worst-ever bushfire disaster, with 173 people killed in what has been dubbed "Black Saturday".

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait)

- Reuters

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Best of our wild blogs: 30 Dec 15

NSS Kids’ Fun with Snakes at Pasir Ris Park
Fun with Nature

NSS Kids Fun with Water Birds at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve
Fun with Nature

Results of Exxon Mobil Endangered Biodiversity and Conservation Programme Documentary Making Competition
News from Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

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Parts of CBD and Civic District to try out car-free Sundays

Adrian Lim, Straits Times AsiaOne 30 Dec 15;

A view of the Padang and the CBD as seen from Swissotel The Stamford. Cyclists and joggers can enjoy a 4.7km route of fully and partially closed roads.

Parts of the Central Business District (CBD) and Civic District will go car-free every last Sunday of the month in a pilot project to kick off early next year.

Under the six-month trial, cyclists and joggers will be able to enjoy a 4.7km route of fully and partially closed roads in the area in the morning, with community activities and mass workouts also being organised for the public.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) called a tender earlier this month to appoint an events management company to run the monthly programme, slated to start on Feb 28. A URA spokesman said: "This pilot is a step towards a 'car-lite' city, and aims to promote active lifestyles and enhance liveability in the city."

He added that it was "a way to reclaim the roads for cycling, jogging and walking, and make the city a more people-friendly and enjoyable place".

He said the roads to be closed - which include St Andrew's Road, Connaught Drive, Fullerton Road, Robinson Road and Shenton Way - were chosen because they are "under-utilised" on Sunday mornings.

The URA said it will review the six-month car-free pilot to see if roads in some areas can be closed on a regular basis on weekends for sports and community activities.

The car-free Sundays will coincide with an ongoing project to transform the Civic District - the area around the Padang, which is home to landmarks such as the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, the National Gallery and Esplanade Park - into a walkable precinct.

The first phase of the $66 million project has been completed, with the second stage to be finished by the fourth quarter of next year.

Car-free plan 'will open up more recreational space'
Adrian Lim, Joanna Seow, The Straits Times AsiaOne 31 Dec 15;

Experts and cyclists have welcomed a pilot scheme to ban cars from the Central Business District (CBD) and Civic District on selected Sundays, saying it will create more recreational space.

Motorists believe it will not affect them greatly as many of the roads are quiet on that day.

The six-month trial by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is slated to start in February and be held every last Sunday of the month. It will see a 4.7km route being closed and given over to cyclists, joggers and walkers.

The concept is similar to Kuala Lumpur's Car Free Mornings, which are held twice a month, along a 7km stretch of road.

Mr Scott Dunn, the South-east Asia vice-president of global engineering group Aecom who was involved in the KL initiative, said car-free days offer a "higher-value use" of roads on the weekends.

"It's a fantastic use of the space to create opportunities for people to interact and to do things that they wouldn't normally be able to do on the streets. You create greater liveability in the city."

As part of the car-free Sundays, there will be full road closures around the Padang and partial road closures along Fullerton Road, Shenton Way and Robinson Road from 7am to 9am.

Following that, parts of Connaught Drive and St Andrew's Road will remain closed until noon, to allow people to walk around "activity zones" planned around the Padang, the URA spelt out in tender documents published this month.

The URA is looking to appoint an events management company to run the car-free programme.

At the Esplanade Park and Empress Lawn, the National Parks Board, the Health Promotion Board and SportSG will organise community and mass exercise activities in conjunction with the event.

Mr Francis Chu, co-founder of interest group Love Cycling SG, said cyclists who ride along the Singapore River and in the Marina Bay area will be able to connect to areas in the CBD and Civic District, making for a "scenic and enjoyable" trip.

Mr Chu said that by giving people an opportunity to cycle in parts of the CBD, some may even be "inspired" to use it as a means to commute to the office on weekdays.

"People will come to see that cycling can happen not just on Park Connector Networks or in parks, but on the roads," said Mr Chu.
Drivers told The Straits Times that the road closures would not be a hindrance. Bank employee Ken Chen, 27, who occasionally frequents the Marina Bay area on weekends, said the bulk of the road closures happen earlier in the morning, and will not affect him. As the Marina Bay area is well connected, Mr Chen said he could "take other routes" to get to where he wants to go.

While most pedestrians said they would enjoy walking in the car-free areas, some said it would not make a difference whether the roads are free of vehicles.

Communications graduate Joel Chan, 25, said: "It'll probably appeal to runners, but the window of time may be too narrow to attract casual pedestrians to enjoy a walk in the city centre."

CBD outfits give thumbs up to car-free Sundays
Seow Bei Yi, My Paper AsiaOne 1 Jan 16;

Establishments in the Central Business and Civic districts said they welcome plans for "car-free Sunday" in the area and look forward to more vibrancy there.

The six-month trial by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is slated to start in late February and take place every last Sunday of the month. A proposed 4.7km route will be closed and reserved for cyclists, joggers and pedestrians.

Giovanni Viterale, general manager of The Fullerton Heritage, said the initiative will create a higher level of vibrancy in the precinct.

The Fullerton Heritage includes The Fullerton Hotel, The Fullerton Bay Hotel, Clifford Pier and Customs House, which are near or along Fullerton Road.

Mr Viterale said: "We are certain that the public will appreciate the opportunity to experience the precinct and its key attractions in a different manner, whether on foot or on a bicycle."

As part of the car-free Sundays, there will be full road closures around the Padang and partial closures along Fullerton Road, Shenton Way and Robinson Road from 7am to 9am. Parts of Connaught Drive and St Andrew's Road will remain closed until noon.

This will allow people to walk around "activity zones" planned around the Padang, said URA in tender documents published last month.

It is looking to appoint an events management company to run the car-free programme.

URA plans for partial closures of Shenton Way, Robinson and Fullerton roads to be on the right side of the lane, away from the bus stop, to minimise disruption to bus services.

Chong Siak Ching, chief executive officer of the National Gallery Singapore, said it had been consulted in the planning process.

She said that the initiative will encourage more visitors to go to the Gallery in St Andrew's Road and explore the area, while allowing amenities in the Civic District to work together to extend activities to the public.

Some shops are waiting for details of the initiative to be finalised to see if it will affect business.

"Sunday usually has a smaller customer crowd but more car drivers are seen," said Jacqueline Lim, assistant director of Renaissance Properties, which manages Lau Pa Sat Festival Market on Raffles Quay. She hopes that roadside parking will be considered in the final plans and expressed support for the initiative.

There are 11 car-free zones in Singapore. Many have been successful, including Circular Road, which is closed from 6pm to 1am on Fridays and Saturdays.

"There was a footfall increase of 15 per cent during the road closure period in 2014, compared with 2013," said Anitha Immanuel, place manager of Singapore River One, which represents the interests of all stakeholders in the Singapore River precinct, including Circular Road.

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MPA steps up checks on vessels that call on Singapore ports

According to the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, marine surveyors will conduct up to 13 inspections during peak travel periods such as the festive season, or twice the average number each month.
Liyana Othman Channel NewsAsia 29 Dec 15;

SINGAPORE: The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has stepped up checks on vessels that call on Singapore ports this festive season, to ensure that passenger ferries are seaworthy and comply with international safety standards.

In late November, a Batamfast ferry heading from Batam to Singapore hit a floating object. Ninety passengers were on board. The crew was reportedly unprepared for an emergency, and the life rafts leaked.

To better protect ferry passengers, marine surveyors will conduct up to 13 inspections during peak travel periods such as the festive season, or twice the average number each month.

These checks are conducted on 58 Singapore- and foreign-registered ferries, run by 10 operators.

Mr Lim Hock Lye, senior assistant director (Flag State Control) at MPA, said: "We do spot checks when the ferries are coming alongside the terminals, when they are disembarking passengers and embarking passengers.

“During this period, we do a focused inspection on the general condition of the ship and to make sure that the crew are familiar with their duties and responsibilities."

MPA also conducts detailed checks that could last three hours. Marine surveyors go up to the navigation bridge to make sure documents like safety certificates, records of safety equipment, information on the vessel's maximum capacity, the crew's certificates of competency, as well as navigational and communication equipment are in order.

They also check if the crew has proper voyage planning before inspecting the machinery and the hull, or the ship's main body. Surveyors make sure they are in working condition and there are no fire hazards or leakages, among other things.

Finally, they check if lifesaving and firefighting equipment has been serviced, stowed and carried in adequate numbers. Surveyors will also review the safety video and posters on board.

Another crucial aspect of an inspection is the simulation of an emergency, to check the preparedness of the crew members to respond to any incident on board.

"MPA believes that safety is everyone's responsibility,” said Mr Lim. “That's why we encourage all stakeholders, including the ferry operators, to be vigilant in safeguarding ship safety to prevent accidents.”

“We conduct regular briefings for the ferry operators and their crew to raise awareness of the safe practices at sea, navigational safety, as well as emergency preparedness,” he added.

According to MPA, all ferry operators are cooperative and always facilitate these inspections. Ferry operators that fail to meet safety standards must address the issue. If they do not do so and this poses a serious threat, they will not be allowed to operate the vessel until the problem is rectified.

- CNA/xk

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Malaysia: Malacca bans plastic bags

R.S.N. MURALI The Star 30 Dec 15;

MALACCA: Consumers in Malacca will have to bring along their own shopping bags after the state government declares a total ban on plastic bags made from petroleum by-products at all supermarkets and shopping malls from Friday.

Previously, all shopping premises in Malacca had a “No Plastic Bag Day” on Fridays and Saturdays.

State Education, Higher Education, Science and Technology, Green Technology and Innovation chairman Datuk Md Yunos Husin said the ruling would be imposed in all shopping malls and supermarkets.

“From Jan 1, consumers will have bring along their own shopping bags or the cash counters will supply them with biodegradable bags made of plant-based materials,” he said yesterday.

He said the move was an initiative by the state government to reduce wastage and in line with Malacca’s status as a green technology state.

“Our landfills and drains are filled with paper bags and this doesn’t serve our ambitious plan to be a fully green state,” he said.

Md Yunos said the planning was done two years ago with discussions with representatives from all malls and supermarkets before the implementation.

“At the same time, factories and manufacturers in the state will also be encouraged to reduce packaging materials made of plastic,” Md Yunos said.

He said the ruling also would affect hawkers and eateries in the state as they would not be allowed to use polystyrene packaging.

Meanwhile, Malacca Bio-Technology Corporation’s CEO Badrul Hisham Badrudin said biodegradable plastic bags and food containers would be supplied to shopping premises and eateries.

He said the corporation had conducted research and development for years to ensure that their plastic bags and food packages available for consumers were environmentally friendly.

“We have also suggested to the state government to look into a mechanism where the fee for yearly business licences could be reduced for hawkers adopting green packaging,” he said.

Badrul said the supplies for plastic bags and food packaging were sufficient as the plan to shift to environmentally-friendly materials was done a few years ago.

CM backs move to shame litterbugs in Malacca
The Star 30 Dec 15;

MALACCA: Chief Minister Datuk Seri Idris Haron has thrown his support behind the city council’s proposal to shame litterbugs in Malacca, suggesting that repeat offenders should perhaps be made to do community work.

The “harsh” penalties were needed to maintain Malacca’s position as a major tourist destination, he said.

Apart from the idea of having a “hall of shame” displaying details of the offenders, The Star reported yesterday that the Malacca Historic City Council was seeking to make offenders walk around with placards saying “Don’t Mess With Malacca” for about 10 minutes.

At present, litterbugs face a RM500 fine, but under the proposals, which are slated to be discussed at the city council’s meeting next month, repeat offenders would be compounded a maximum of RM2,000.

Idris said the state authorities wanted to act against those who were ill-disciplined and kept dirtying the place.

He said he had asked the city council to rope in non-governmental organisations, tourism and hotel associations and other relevant parties for their input and ideas in drafting an “airtight” by-law that could be enforced against litterbugs.

“The feedback from stakeholders are crucial as the local council alone can’t execute the job of maintaining a high-level of cleanliness,” he said.

As for the proposal for repeat offenders to wear the placard, he said it was meant as a lesson to them.

“It is not our intention to insult anyone,” he said, adding however, that Malacca could not allow its popular spots to be marred with piles of rubbish.

“If the proposal for the placard over the neck is adopted, it will be an effective way to tell others that Malacca is serious about the situation.

“Let us look ahead. Malacca is getting an overwhelming volume of tourists,” he said, adding that it was thus crucial for the place to be clean.

Idris said he had received many reports about garbage thrown about everywhere especially during peak travel period.

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Malaysia; Kuantan residents wake up to a crimson tide after heavy rain

QISHIN TARIQ The Star 30 Dec 15;

KUANTAN: After a downpour the night before, seaside residents and visitors woke up to a shocking sight – the sea off Pantai Batu Hitam was a bright red, a far cry from the day when it had idyllic blue waters.

Trader Anita Awang, 38, said the sea had been a murky shade of red since morning.

“My husband thought it was just sand stirred up, but when I ran my hand through it, the water was really red,” she said.

The Kuantan-native said it was the first time she had seen such a phenomenon, adding that the colour was even more evident during high tide, around 8am.

Keropok seller Esah Awang, 68, said Pantai Batu Hitam – which translates to Black Stone Beach – would often become muddy during the monsoon season.

“But this year is worse,” said the trader who had moved to nearby Beserah over 50 years ago.

She warned that it was dangerous to swim at the beach when the water turned colour, as it was very contaminated.

A check along the Beserah-Kuantan road that runs parallel to the sea painted a similar picture of pollution along the stretch.

By around 3pm, the red tide had receded, leaving the water a muddy brown instead.

Stop Bauxite Mining Movement (Geram) chairman Ali Akbar Othman said many residents had been posting photos of the red sea to the group's Facebook group page, prompting them to investigate the incident.

“This is exactly what we’ve been warning would happen,” said Ali, referring to the outcry against bauxite mining which has seen red effluent being washed into rivers and drains near here during the rainy season.

Bauxite mining has spread to the Beserah area, and a large number of transport lorries can be seen carrying the red soil to Kuantan Port in Gebeng, less than 15km from Pantai Batu Hitam.

Tourists turn tail over red sea along the beach in Kuantan
The Star 30 Dec 15;

KUANTAN: The threat of the monsoon season is deterrent enough. Seeing the sea turn red has left business owners along Kuantan’s beaches staring at a huge blow to business.

Tomyam restaurant owner Ahmad Zawawi Mustaffa, 36, said business had improved during the school holidays, but many literally did a U-turn when they saw the red sea phenomenon.

“Orang nampak air, terus je pusing (visitors turned right around when they saw the water),” said Zawawi, whose store has a good view of the South China Sea.

He noticed the unusual colour when he was opening shop at around 8am. The water continued to turn into a murky, dirty yellow well into the afternoon.

A day-long deluge on Monday is believed to have caused bauxite dust from the many mining areas to wash into rivers leading to the sea.

Stall owner Wan Faizrul Wan Mohd Fadzil, 31, said he had seen the waters getting murky during the monsoon, but this was the first time he had seen the water go red.

“Saya tengok pun takut (Seeing it gave me chills),” he said, adding it was likely to scare tourists even more.

Grocer Mohd Idrus Hamzah, 35, said the beach was popular with families both locally and from outside the state.

The father of two said he would not let his children swim in such water, and did not expect any parents to do so either.

An owner of a seaside hotel said he saw customers playing on the beach despite the odd-coloured water.

Tourist Azmi Ghani, 47, said the sea water was much worse than when he visited just two weeks ago.

“This beach was beautiful two years ago, barely tolerable two weeks ago, and now it’s a mess,” said the businessman from Selangor.

“I won’t be coming back.”

Beserah assemblyman Andan­sura Rabu said a smaller scale incident happened in early September, when a four hours of heavy rain caused the waters near Kuantan Port to turn red.

“Where does this red come from? In the years before there was bauxite mining, the monsoon didn’t make the sea red,” he replied, when asked if it was fair to blame the phenomenon on bauxite mining.

Bauxite mining in Pahang has surged since 2014 following Indonesia’s ban on the ore exports and a weaker ringgit. Bauxite ore is refined into aluminium and it is very much in demand in China.

According to the Minerals and Geoscience Department, production in Malaysia increased more than four-fold to 962,799 tonnes in 2014 from the year before.

State public amenities and environment committee chairman Datuk Seri Mohd Soffi Abd Razak declined to comment until details were available.

The Star had previously highlighted the call by parties – both for and against bauxite mining – for a stop work of bauxite mining during the monsoon.

However, due to the continued dry weather well into December, bauxite mining has been continuing.

Pantai Batu Hitam turns into red sea
QISHIN TARIQ The Star 29 Dec 15;

KUANTAN: Seaside residents and visitors here were shocked by the transformation of Pantai Batu Hitam into a red sea, following a heavy downpour the night before.

Trader Anita Awang, 38, said the sea had been a murky shade of red since morning, prompting many of her customers to take photos of the unusual sight.

"My husband figured it was just sand stirred up, but when I ran my hand through the water it was really red, not gritty grey like when it's sand," she said.

The Kuantan-native said it was the first time she had seen such a phenomena, adding that the colour was even more evident during high tide, around 8am.

Keropok seller Esah Awang (no relation), 68, said Pantai Batu Hitam often become muddy during the monsoon season.

"Yeah, but this year is even worse," said the trader, who had moved to Beserah over 50 years ago.

She warned that it was dangerous to swim at the beach when the water turned colour, for fear of any number of contaminants.

A check by The Star along the Beserah-Kuantan road that ran parallel to the sea painted a similar picture of pollution along the stretch.

By around 3pm, the tide had receded leaving the water a muddy brown instead.

Stop Bauxite Mining Movement (Geram) chairman Ali Akbar Othman said many residents had been posting photos of the red sea to the group's Facebook group page, prompting them to investigate the incident.

"This is exactly what we've been warning would happen," said Ali, referring to the danger of bauxite being washed into rivers and drains during the rainy season.

Bauxite mining had spread to the Beserah area, and was exacerbated by the large number of transport lorries carrying the red soil to Kuantan Port, in Gebeng, less than 15km away from Pantai Batu Hitam.

Rivers, sea run red in Malaysia as bauxite exports boom
JOSEPH SIPALAN Reuters 30 Dec 15;

Rivers and the sea ran red in parts of Malaysia this week after two days of heavy rain brought an increase in run-off from the booming and largely unregulated bauxite mining industry.

Demand from China for the aluminum ingredient has fed a rapid rise in bauxite mining in the third-largest state of Pahang, in the east of peninsular Malaysia, and concern is growing about the impact on the environment.

Media on Wednesday showed images of red seas and rivers near the state capital of Kuantan, the center of the industry and the location of a port from which much of the bauxite is shipped.

Reporters said the sea were discolored along a 15 km (9 mile) stretch of coast."Of course the federal government and state government are concerned," Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told Reuters.

"There has been an ongoing discussion but unfortunately during the monsoon season things got worse. Stockpiles leach out into the sea."

In just three years, Malaysia has transformed itself from a modest supplier to the top source of the material for China.

The change came after Indonesia banned bauxite exports in early 2014, forcing China, the world's top aluminum producer, to seek supplies elsewhere.

In the first 11 months of 2015, Malaysia shipped more than 20 million tonnes of bauxite to China, up nearly 700 percent on the previous year. In 2013, it shipped just 162,000 tonnes.

Residents have complained of contamination of water sources and the destruction of their environment as mining operations remove the red earth rich in bauxite.

Wan Junaidi has told parliament there is little regulation of the industry and how it manages waste. The ministry has prepared regulations but they have yet to be adopted by the state.

Kuantan member of parliament Fuziah Salleh said it was a simple process for companies to get a license to extract laterites, basic materials for aluminum production. Once they have the licenses, they can start extracting, she said.

The state government has done little to protect the environment and residents during the industry's growth, she said.

This was despite it finding in August that levels of aluminum, mercury, arsenic and manganese in one river were at a level so high it was unusable for consumption, irrigation or recreation, she said.

Fuziah cited a report from the state's environment department, a copy of which she showed to Reuters.

"The situation is lawless," she told Reuters. "It's a free for all. Bauxite could easily be sustainable but they are doing terrible things to the environment."

Pahang's top environment official was unavailable for comment on Wednesday.

Media has reported angry residents burning trucks taking bauxite to the port in protest over the environmental impact.

(Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff and Emily Chow; Editing by Simon Webb, Robert Birsel)

'Avoid contaminated seafood'
The Star 31 Dec 15;

KUANTAN: It is best not to consume seafood obtained from bauxite-contaminated waters off Pahang.

State Fisheries Department director Adnan Hussain said water samples had been taken from the affected areas for laboratory analyses to determine the safety of the marine products.

“The results of the tests are expected to be known within two weeks. Meanwhile, we advise the public not to eat molluscs (from these areas),” he said.

He also advised against fishing activities in these areas due to the current high level of turbidity.

He said previous tests conducted by the department on the mineral content, following the murky shade of red in the rivers and sea, found that the level was not high.

Meanwhile, Pahang Department of Environment deputy director Zainal Abidin Abdullah said the red water in the rivers and sea was due to land-clearing activities leading to water run-off after the recent heavy rains.

He said the situation worsened when the surface water flow was contaminated with bauxite which had spilled on the roads while being transported.

“The increased water flow during the heavy rains also caused silting in the rivers, mixed with bauxite from the water run-off.

“All these elements then flowed into the river before ending up in the sea and the large quantity caused the red river and sea phenomenon,” he said, adding that the situation would return to normal soon.

Meanwhile, state public utilities and environment committee chairman Datuk Seri Mohd Soffi Abd Razak said the state government had taken samples from rivers affected by the phenomenon to identify the causes.

He said the investigations involving various agencies were being conducted to ensure the phenomenon did not recur in the future as Sungai Balok and Pantai Batu Hitam were not just tourist attractions but also provided revenue to the local fishermen.

“We have to carry out our investigations. For instance, Sungai Balok affects a large area and there are development and mining activities near the river.

“It is better to determine the cause so that action can be taken.

“The results of the investigation will be tabled at the state exco meeting,” he said after visiting the Sungai Balok fisherman’s jetty yesterday. — Bernama

Environment Dept begins probe on Balok red sea
T.N.ALAGESH New Straits Times 30 Dec 15;

KUANTAN: The state Environment Department has began their probe to identify the cause of the red sea phenomenon between Pantai Batu Hitam and Sungai Pengorak in the state capital.

A spokesman from the department said officers from the Environment Department and the Drainage and Irrigation Department (DID) were sent to collect water samples from the sea and also nearby rivers, which had turned murky on Tuesday.

"Our focus is to identify the cause that resulted the sea to turn red.

During the monsoon season, it is common for the rain water to flow in rivers and streams on its way to the sea.

"Our officers will send the water samples to the state Chemistry Department for test and check if it is contaminated with radioactive materials," he said.

State Public Amenities and Environment Committee chairman Datuk Seri Mohd Soffi Abdul Razak was present at the Balok jetty today to met the Environment Department officers after they completed collecting the water samples at Sungai Balok.

He later attended a closed-door briefing with representatives from DID, Fisheries Department, Land and Minerals Department, and the Environment Department.

The red sea near Balok here which made headlines on Tuesday morning was believed to have been triggered by the extensive bauxite mining activities.

Heavy rain for more than 24 hours since Sunday was alleged to have washed the bauxite residue from the stockpile near Kuantan Port into the nearby river, which flows to the sea.

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Malaysia: Flood situation improves in Pahang, Kelantan


KUANTAN: The flood situation in two East Coast states showed a marked improvement today, with many areas having fully recovered from rising waters.

In Pahang, the flood appears to have receded fully state-wide, with 51 people at the SK Kempadang evacuation centre here able to return home today.

State Civil Defence Department (JPAM) director Zainal Yusoff said the floodwaters that had inundated houses at PPRT Kempadang and Kampung Berjaya Permai has recovered and the victims returned home at 9am.

"The sunny skies allowed the victims to clean their homes on Tuesday.

Although the weather has been promising, we hope villagers especially those living in low-lying areas will remain cautious," he said.

The 51 villagers were evacuated to the relief centre after their homes were inundated by ankle-deep waters on Monday afternoon.

Meanwhile in Kelantan, the flood situation also showed signs of improvement, with 47 of the 54 people evacuated due to high waters in Kuala Krai being able to return to their homes.

A spokesman from a relief centre in Kuala Krai here said the victims, hailing from 14 families, were allowed to return to their respective homes about 10.30am after flood waters in their villages receded.

The spokesman said the evacuees were from Kampung Guchil and all have moved to the centre since Monday.

The spokesman said the remaining seven from one family are still taking shelter at another relief centre in Manik Urai.

The water level at the Kelantan river here and in Tanah Merah have slightly dropped today compared to yesterday.

Flood situation improving in Terengganu
The Star 31 Dec 15;

KUALA TERENGGANU: The flood situation in Terengganu is improving and the number of evacuees still at relief centres is falling quickly.

As of 6pm yesterday, few evacuation centres were open and in only one district, Kemaman, housing 547 victims from 125 families.

The centres were Seberang Tayor Hulu Hall (164 victims), Felda Seberang Tayor Civic Hall (286 victims), Masjid Kampung Batu (16) and Tebak (81).

“Floodwaters in certain areas, especially in Hulu Terengganu, Marang and Dungun where initially some 57 evacuation centres were opened since Sunday, have also receded,” said state Civil Defence Department director Lt-Col Che Adam A. Rahman.

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Indonesia: Hot spots reappear as rainy season begins

The Jakarta Post 28 Dec 15;

PEKANBARU: The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency’s (BMKG) Pekanbaru station in Riau has reported the emergence of new hot spots indicating land or forest fires across the province over the past few days, despite the rainy season that has been taking place during the past month.

Station spokesperson Slamet Riyadi on Sunday said that the Terra Aqua satellite had detected 10 hot spots in Riau on Friday and Saturday and another one on Sunday.

“Most of the hot spots were found in areas along the [province’s] east coast,” he said, adding that the incident could have been triggered by a weather anomaly in several areas within the province.

Earlier this year, many regions in the country, including Riau, the nation’s largest oil-producing region, had struggled for months to reduce the impacts of haze pollution triggered by massive land and forest fires.

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Indonesia: Reforming fiscal policies to remedy land use woes

Jane Wilkinson and Tiza Mafira, Jakarta Post 29 Dec 15;

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration has been busy this year, announcing several new policy packages to strengthen the economy in a few months. Then in November the President declared a radical shift in peatland management, with policies designed to halt agricultural expansion into peat forests while facilitating the rehabilitation of already degraded peatlands.

In December, Indonesia made a commitment at the Paris climate change negotiations to reduce emissions by 29 percent by 2030.

This tension between economic growth and environmental protection requires skillful balancing across Indonesia’s economy and particularly, in the expanding agriculture sector.

The proposed economic packages offer tried and true approaches to encouraging business growth. But they lack consideration of how fiscal adjustments could encourage environmental protection while encouraging growth.

Our analysis shows big potential, uncovering inefficiencies in fiscal policies in the land use sector, and suggesting that reforms in this area may be a win-win for better, cleaner growth.

For example, currently, 93.5 percent of all government revenue related to land use comes from levies based on production volume instead of land size.

The more you produce, the more you pay, and there are neither penalties nor rewards to use less land. Only for the land and building tax and a few state taxes are levied in proportion to land used — the more land in play, the more tax you pay.

However, even these taxes create little correlation between the value of the land and the amount paid. So, for now, with land undertaxed, businesses have every reason to use more land to increase production, rather than improving the productivity of land already in play.

The business sector is not the only party influenced by fiscal incentives. Regional governments also stand to gain or lose when fiscal policies change.

A key component of Indonesia’s fiscal system is the revenue sharing fund or Dana Bagi Hasil, which allocates a certain percentage of state revenue back to the region from which it originated.

One of the ideas behind this system is to encourage regional governments to develop key sectors, such as natural resource extraction.

However, current arrangements support some very diverse outcomes. A mandatory 80-90 percent of revenues from land and building Tax, mining royalties, and forestry fees must be allocated back to the regional government. On the other hand, revenue from agricultural production is only minimally disbursed back to regions.

This means that while regions with resource extraction sectors share relatively well in the wealth extracted, regions focused on agriculture, and palm oil production in particular, do not.

As a result, the palm oil industry contributed more than Rp 10 trillion to national tax revenues in 2012/2013, but only 11-14 percent flowed back to producing regions.

Local officials, strapped for cash, must instead turn to other revenue sources, where they can gain more from granting new land permits than they can from discouraging land expansion.

In short, the message the fiscal system sends to investors is, “we will give you plenty of tax breaks for production, and as a bonus, land expansion is always cheap.”

The message it sends to the regional governments is, “the only way to gain from your agriculture sector is by granting more land permits.” Both messages are in direct opposition to the government’s environmental goals.

This is not to say that the solution is more taxes. Rather, if the government is serious about achieving environmental and economic goals, it needs to consider how fiscal systems could better encourage businesses to optimize their land use, while still growing economically.

The good news: There are plenty of options. The government could tax land use rather than production volumes or profits. It could introduce environmental indicators into tax rates or tax holiday eligibility criteria.

It could make better use of earmarking mechanisms to support local sustainability targets — something common in other sectors, but unseen in land use to-date.

Finally, it could increase tax revenue allocation to local governments in a way that encourages more productivity instead of more land expansion.

Indonesia needs to grow economically. But to do so long-term, President Jokowi is right to also prioritize natural resource protection. Innovative adjustments to the fiscal system may be the solution needed to do both.

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Worries grow over humanitarian impacts of 'strongest El Nino'

Matt McGrath BBC 30 Dec 15;

The strongest El Nino on record is likely to increase the threat of hunger and disease for tens of millions of people in 2016 aid agencies say.
The weather phenomenon is set to exacerbate droughts in some areas while increasing flooding in others.

Some of the worst impacts are likely in Africa with food shortages expected to peak in February.

Regions including the Caribbean, Central and South America will also be hit in the next six months.

This periodic weather event, which tends to drive up global temperatures and disturb weather patterns, has helped push 2015 into the record books as the world's warmest year.

"By some measures this has already been the strongest El Nino on record, it depends on exactly how you measure it," said Dr Nick Klingaman from the University of Reading.

"In a lot of tropical countries we are seeing big reductions in rainfall of the order of 20-30%. Indonesia has experienced a bad drought, the Indian monsoon was about 15% below normal and the forecasts for Brazil and Australia are for reduced monsoons."

As both droughts and floods continue, the scale of the potential impacts is worrying aid agencies. Around 31m people are said be facing food insecurity across Africa, a significant increase over the last year.

Around a third of these people live in Ethiopia where 10.2m are projected to require humanitarian assistance in 2016.

The UK's Department for International Development says it is providing emergency support for 2.6m people and 120,000 malnourished children. They say they will provide 8m people with food or cash support from January 2016.

"If we fail to act now against this especially powerful El Nino, we will fail vulnerable people across our world," UK International Development Minister Nick Hurd said in a statement.

"Ensuring security for those affected by El Nino is important to their countries but also in Britain's national interest. Only by protecting and stabilising vulnerable countries can we ensure people are not forced to leave their homes in search of food or a new livelihood."

According to the UN around 60m people have been forced to leave their homes because of conflict.

Aid agencies like Oxfam are worried that the impacts of the continuing El Nino in 2016 will add to existing stresses such as the wars in Syria, South Sudan and Yemen.

They say that food shortages are likely to peak in Southern Africa in February with Malawi estimating that almost 3m people will require humanitarian assistance before March.

Drought and erratic rains have impacted 2m people across Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. More floods are expected in Central America in January.

"Millions of people in places like Ethiopia, Haiti and Papua New Guinea are already feeling the effects of drought and crop failure," said Jane Cocking, from Oxfam.

"We urgently need to get help to these areas to make sure people have enough food and water.

"We cannot afford to allow other large-scale emergencies to develop elsewhere. If the world waits to respond to emerging crises in southern Africa and Latin America, we will not be able to cope," she said.

While many parts of the developing world will more directly feel the ongoing impacts of El Nino, the developed world will see impacts on food prices.

"It takes some time for the impacts of El Nino to feed through to social and economic systems," said Dr Klingaman.

"Historically food prices have gone up by 5%-10% for staples. Crops like coffee and rice and cocoa and sugar tend to be particularly affected."

The El Nino event is likely to tail off into the spring - but that may not be good news either.

El Ninos are often followed by La Nina events, which can have opposite but similarly harmful effects. Scientists say during an El Nino there is a huge transfer of heat from the ocean to the atmosphere. Normally, as in 1997/98, that heat transfer tends to be followed by a cooling of the ocean, a La Nina event.

"It's possible but far from certain that this time next year we could be talking about the reverse of many of these impacts," said Dr Klingaman.

"In places where we are seeing droughts from El Nino we could be seeing flooding from La Nina next year.

"It's just as disruptive, it's just the other way round."

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Best of our wild blogs: 29 Dec 15

Macro Photography Outings – December 2015
Bugs & Insects of Singapore

An Afternoon in a Global Big Year
Con Foley Photography

Noah Strycker’s Global Big Year stop in Singapore
Singapore Bird Group

Reduce and reuse for good: Singapore's first EcoBank launched

Researchers identify mangroves’ worst enemies
Mongabay Environmental News Meet the L’OrĂ©al Singapore Women in Science 2015 fellows (Part I) – Dr Neo Mei Lin
Neo Mei Lin

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Task force studying measures to tackle disease outbreaks

Audrey Tan, Straits Times AsiaOne 29 Dec 15;

Clearer guidelines and a simplified process for reporting cases of infectious diseases are among the measures being considered by a task force set up to boost Singapore's ability to tackle infectious disease outbreaks.

The task force was set up earlier this month by the Ministry of Health (MOH) in the wake of lapses revealed by the hepatitis C infections at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) earlier this year.

"What we want is to encourage and enable medical professionals to report cases which they come across by providing clearer guidelines and simplifying the reporting process where possible, for example, by having a direct link from the laboratory to MOH on positive cases," said Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat, who chairs the task force.

He said the task force will look at the "modes of notification, timelines and escalation process" of infectious diseases, but be mindful about not adding to the workload.

"The task force will be careful about the downsides of adding more reporting and administrative burden for our healthcare institutions and medical professionals," he said, citing a need to keep standard operating procedures simple and help medical professionals "focus on their core responsibilities and to comply with existing infection-control protocols".

The task force will also relook the list of notifiable diseases under the Infectious Diseases Act, and have a national-level "Swat team" of infectious disease experts who can be mobilised at short notice.

It also plans to make better use of data analytics and information technology systems to boost the detection of potential outbreaks.

"Our current system depends too heavily on human judgment to process large amounts of information and decide whether the risks are significant enough for escalation and further investigation," said Mr Chee, who is also Minister of State for Communications and Information, at the launch of an SG50 book and video about Singapore's experience in overcoming infectious diseases.

Currently, most measures to prevent and control infectious diseases here come under the Infectious Diseases Act, which includes provisions for the director of medical services of MOH to get patient information from doctors to investigate an outbreak, for instance.

To date, 25 patients who were warded at SGH have been diagnosed with the same family of hepatitis C virus. Eight patients have died, with the hepatitis C virus infection "a likely contributory factor" in seven of the deaths.

Professor Paul Tambyah, secretary-general of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, said the measures identified were a good starting point.

But he said Singapore could also look at adopting a "one health" approach, which looks at human and animal health together.

This could be an area of interest, especially with the recent outbreak of Group B Streptococcus infections linked to raw freshwater fish.

Professor Leo Yee Sin, director of the Institute of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, said the measures were critical areas for the task force to follow up on.

One area of interest is how to improve the notification system, she said, adding that she thought Singapore was in a good position to do this, as a lot of the recording is done electronically.

"The trick is how to take the electronic information and make sense of it using electronic and big data analysis," she said.

"But recognising the amount of data is not enough. Step Two would be to identify and analyse the data, and (take) response action."

Outbreak response unit 'a good idea'
Audrey Tan, The Straits Times Asia One 31 Dec 15;

The idea to have a quick-response "Swat team" to tackle outbreaks of infectious diseases in Singapore is a good one, experts have said.

The idea had come from a Ministry of Health (MOH) task force set up in the aftermath of the outbreak of hepatitis C at the Singapore General Hospital, which was linked to several deaths earlier this year.

The experts said that such a team would provide healthcare institutions with the expertise needed to deal with complex and unusual outbreaks.

The "Swat team" would also be able to provide an "unbiased assessment" of the situation, said Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist from Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital.

"Doctors within the hospital... may be under inappropriate pressure to report findings that are less truthful but better for the hospital's reputation," he said.

On Monday, Minister of State for Health Chee Hong Tat said that the MOH task force was considering setting up a national-level "Swat team". It would comprise infectious disease experts who can be mobilised quickly to respond to outbreaks in any healthcare institution here.

The "Swat team" is one of four measures being considered by the task force, which was set up earlier this month.

Other measures include reviewing standard operating procedures, making better use of technology and reviewing the list of notifiable diseases under the Infectious Diseases Act.

Associate Professor David Lye, senior consultant at Tan Tock Seng Hospital's Infectious Diseases Department and Institute of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology, said that similar response units have been implemented overseas.

He said: "An example of this would be the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), part of the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"The US has a lot of small hospitals and there are outbreaks every year, everywhere. The EIS attends to some of these outbreaks in smaller hospitals, as well as overseas. That is definitely a great idea and should be developed further."

For instance, the CDC last year sent EIS officers to West Africa in response to an Ebola outbreak there, in the largest international outbreak response in the CDC's history.

Professor Paul Tambyah, secretary-general of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, said that while it is not yet clear what form the Singapore "Swat team" will take, the EIS was "very effective". He said: "They get sent anywhere, and investigate anything - community outbreaks, hospital outbreaks."

But Dr Leong pointed out that for the "Swat team" to be effective, it must be given access to cutting-edge laboratory research.

"Science has changed over the last five years, and we can now get genetic signatures of the viruses concerned ," he said.

"This is often a research tool not available to hospitals. Yet, it is crucial and should be considered a country resource."

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