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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