Singapore effort to fight haze ‘almost futile’

NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 31 Oct 15;

SINGAPORE — By the time Singapore’s fire-fighting team headed to Indonesia this month, “nothing short of an act of God”, like rain, could have stopped the fires altogether, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli, as he urged early action so that such efforts do not become “almost a futile exercise”.

Despite dousing 50 hotspots in two weeks in Indonesia, the area covered by the Singapore team recently was “miniscule” compared to the total area that had to be tackled, said Mr Masagos to reporters a day after he returned from meeting his Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) counterparts in Vietnam.

At the meeting, Mr Masagos had pushed for the requesting of international assistance early in the haze season to become standard practice, once an appropriate alert level is reached. The ministers agreed to it.

Earlier this month, after repeated rejections from Indonesia, Singapore’s offer of haze assistance — including a Republic of Singapore Armed Forces Chinook helicopter with a 5,000-litre heli-bucket — was accepted. The Singapore team returned last week after more than 10 days in Palembang.

Asked about Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan reportedly saying that Singapore’s offer of one aircraft to help fight forest fires was “insulting”, Mr Masagos said some nuances in Bahasa Indonesia are lost in translation. He added: “It’s not about how many assets you put there. It’s how effective you can be and how early you can get activated, as well as how many other countries can contribute to make this a regionally sound way of addressing issues like this.”

Mr Masagos said the Malaysians worked out a standard operating procedure with alert levels, trigger points and actions on fire suppression.

According to a statement released after the ASEAN environment ministers met to review cooperation under the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, Indonesia was tasked to establish the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Transboundary Haze Pollution Control in a “timely” manner. ASEAN ministers suggested that the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management be used, in the meantime, for quick suppression of fires.

“There should be an appropriate level at which any party affected by forest fires should get help. And then together in the region, we can gather assets and put out the fires early so that it becomes an effective way of working together,” said Mr Masagos. “This was not something we achieved in this current haze episode, almost a futile exercise but a discovery, nonetheless, that when help comes too late, it does not help at all.”

He welcomed Indonesian officials agreeing to “jumpstart” discussion of Singapore’s Memorandum of Understanding on haze mitigation in Jambi in December.

Indonesian Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar did not attend the ministers’ meetings this week but Mr Masagos said he hopes to meet her as soon as possible, and persuade her to share information, such as the identity of directors of relevant companies. Such help from Indonesia would help to broaden the impact of Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act.

Yesterday (Oct 29), the World Resources Institute said that emissions from this year’s fires have reached 1.62 billion metric tonnes of CO2, bumping Indonesia from the sixth-largest emitter in the world up to the fourth-largest in just six weeks.

Mr Masagos reiterated that Singapore is not interested in taking its friends to task, but is focused on companies with “egregious behaviour”. Despite air quality improving in recent days, consumers should buy from environmentally responsible companies and not let their guard down. With greater attention on them, some companies have become more worried about their reputation and access to capital and markets, Mr Masagos added.

Separately this week, Asia Pulp and Paper – one of the companies from which the Singapore authorities have requested information – provided an update on its fire management in South Sumatra. It is helping Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) by supplying two water-bombing planes with 12,000-litre capacity to South Sumatra, and its suppliers are blocking canals to increase water levels in critical areas of operation.

APP previously announced it would retire 7,000 hectares of plantations in Riau and South Sumatra to protect peatlands — carbon-rich wetlands that burn easily when drained.

APP’s sister company, Singapore-listed palm oil company Golden-Agri Resources also told TODAY that less than 0.5 per cent of its 484,500 hectares of plantations in Kalimantan and Sumatra has been burnt this episode. In Riau province, the proportion is even smaller, at 0.007 per cent, said Mr Agus Purnomo, its managing director, Sustainability and Strategic Stakeholder Engagement. The low percentage of burnt land is because the company is not opening up new land for plantations, instead working with small farmers who want to develop their land without burning.

Fight haze at ASEAN, bilateral and consumer levels: Masagos
Environment Minister Masagos Zulkifli gave updates after attending a meeting on Transboundary Haze Pollution, citing a need to activate regional assets and for Singapore to engage better with Indonesia.
Liyana Othman Channel NewsAsia 30 Oct 15;

SINGAPORE: Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said that there are three levels of cooperation to tackle the haze, as the region aims to eliminate the issue by 2020.

Mr Masagos attended the 13th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on the Environment (13th AMME) and 11th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution (COP-11) in Hanoi on Oct 28 to 29.

On Friday (Oct 30), he held a press conference to update what was discussed there.

At the conference, he said that this year's haze episode is the worst recorded in terms of length and intensity. During the haze, schools were shut when the 24-hour PSI levels hit 322 - the hazardous level - on Sep 25, the first time since the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in 2003.

At the ASEAN level, Mr Masagos called for the management of peatland, noting that concession maps are crucial. He also lauded Indonesian President Joko Widodo's commitment to the One Map initiative, a comprehensive mapping database that seeks to reduce confusion over land ownership.

He revealed that during the ASEAN meetings in Hanoi, member states agreed to activate regional assets to help douse fires quickly, and to institutionalise the activation of international haze assistance as a standard practice when the dry season begins.

On Singapore's deployment of troops to Palembang earlier this month to fight fires, the minister cited Singapore's forces effectiveness of putting out fires at about 50 hotspots, but added that what they could do was "minuscule" as they were called in "so late".

"But because they were called in so late and the peat fire has spread out so much, this is minuscule, the area they were given is really minuscule to the amount that everybody has to put out," said Mr Masagos. "And nothing short of act of God like rain can really stop this fire altogether."

"And therefore, one of the things we have resolved, (is) there should be an appropriate alert level with which any party which is affected by forest fire should get help, and that, together in the region, we can gather assets to put out the fire early so that it becomes an effective way of working together," he added.

"This was not something we achieved in this current haze episode."

While rain and change in wind directions are expected to provide temporary reprieve from the haze, Mr Masagos said stronger cooperation within the region is key to achieving its vision of clearer skies by 2020.

On a bilateral level, Mr Masagos said that Singapore needs to engage better with Indonesia, so that it is as well as it is working with other neighbours like Malaysia. Indonesia has agreed to jump-start discussions to renew a Memorandum of Understanding with Singapore to monitor hot spots and curb fires in the province of Jambi.

The two-year agreement was signed in 2007.

Mr Masagos also expressed his desire to meet with his Indonesian counterpart Siti Nurbaya Bakar as soon as possible.

He cited the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act that Singapore has implemented, which puts to task errant companies that are starting the fires. So far, seven companies have been served notice. Mr Masagos said he will continue to persuade his counterparts to give more names, but reiterated that Singapore is not targeting any country.

"We have to be clear again that we are not targeting any country. We are not against progress and we are not against economic activity that need to support the livelihood of people around the world, but we as all countries responsible to the environment want these companies to make sure they take care of the environment not just for ourselves but for our children," said Mr Masagos.

Finally, Mr Masagos said that consumers have an important role to play. He urged shoppers to choose products from environmentally responsible companies, and said that they should not let their guard down as the haze lets up.

- CNA/wl

Firms behind forest fires 'must be punished'
Francis Chan, Straits Times AsiaOne 30 Oct 15;

Companies responsible for the illegal forest fires that cause the haze must be taken to task, and Singapore hopes to work with Indonesia to bring the culprits to justice, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli yesterday.

"Hope that all of us can work together to bring these recalcitrant companies to task. These companies have been profiting at the expense of the well-being of others and should not go unpunished," said Mr Masagos on Facebook.

The comments by Mr Masagos, who recently took on the new portfolio, come on the same day that ASEAN environment ministers gathered in Hanoi for the 11th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

In a statement yesterday, the ministers jointly expressed concern over the unprecedented severity of the haze which has affected millions in parts of South-east Asia.

Among other things, they also noted and appreciated the collaborative efforts undertaken by Indonesia, the neighbouring ASEAN countries and the international community to address the forest fires and the associated smoke haze.

"Singapore has passed the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act (THPA) in 2014, so that we can take action against companies, and not against countries. We have no interest to take friends to task, since they are doing their best," said Mr Masagos.

"I appreciated Indonesia's efforts to bring these companies to task and reiterated our calls for Indonesia to share information on these companies to facilitate our effective enforcement of the THPA."

Mr Masagos added that while he respects Indonesia's sovereignty and understands that details under investigation cannot be shared, he looked forward to receiving information that can be shared, including the names of these companies and their managers, as well as the charges brought against them.

Fight haze at regional, bilateral and national levels: Masagos
AsiaOne 31 Oct 15;

For South-east Asia to be haze-free by 2020, countries in the region need to combat the haze at regional, bilateral and national levels, Singapore's Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said yesterday.

Giving the Singapore media an update on an ASEAN meeting on environmental issues in Hanoi over the past week, Mr Masagos noted that the current haze situation is the worst on record, surpassing similar crises in 1997 and 2013.

To tackle the issue, countries in the region must "operationalise the three levels at which we can make the co-operation work", he said.

At the ASEAN level, Mr Masagos called for quicker implementation of peatland management strategies, and welcomed Indonesian President Joko Widodo's commitment to roll out the One Map initiative within the next three years.

One Map aims to mark all forest boundaries and concessions clearly on one official map that can be referred to by all parties. This will improve transparency and accountability, and minimise land disputes.

Mr Masagos also said that ASEAN should work towards a haze management system, which could help put out fires faster.

This system, he said, will give all ASEAN meteorological stations satellite pictures and early warning on the ground.

He pointed out that when Indonesia finally accepted Singapore's help to fight forest fires, troops from the Republic extinguished some 50 hot spots over two weeks.

"Because they were called in late, and the peat fire spread out so much, this is minuscule," said Mr Masagos.

"Therefore, one thing we have to solve is that there should be an appropriate alert level, (so) that any party affected by forest fires can get help and that, together, the region can gather assets and put out the fire early, so it becomes an effective way of working together."

On the bilateral level, Mr Masagos hoped that neighbouring countries could co-operate better to tackle the crisis. He said he hoped to meet his Indonesian counterpart to discuss how both sides could work together.

Mr Masagos also stressed that every country should have a national action plan in place.

Singapore, for instance, has implemented the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act to take rogue companies to task and has served notice on seven such companies so far.

He again urged the Indonesian authorities to share the names of errant companies they are pursuing, as the pressure on these firms could be increased when "multiple countries pursue these companies".

Mr Masagos stressed that the Act did not target any country or any economic activity needed to support the livelihoods of people around the world.

However, like all countries which are environmentally responsible, Singapore wants these companies "to make sure that they take care of the environment, not just for ourselves but for our children too", he said.