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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