Monday, 5 October 2015

Haze: A Burning Issue For 4 Decades

Singapore is fortunate to be freed of most natural disasters, but we are not spared of occasional floods and haze. The records at the National Archives and Newspaper Archives of Singapore show that the haze issue has been affecting Singapore and Malaysia for the past four decades. Most were due to the massive burning of forests at Kalimantan and Sumatra.

Here are some of the reports:
  • 1972 - In October 1972, Singapore and West Malaysia were covered by thick haze after days of burning of extensive forests and grass lands around Palembang, Indonesia. The worst day happened on the 14th October, when practically every part of Singapore was fog-bound. Motorists had to switch on their full headlights at Orchard Road and Nicoll Highway.
  • 1975 - A reddish haze hanged over the eastern and southern parts of Singapore due to the jungle clearing works at Johor Bahru and Kota Tinggi.
  • 1977 - By October 1977, the smokes from the raging forest fires at Sumatra had covered much of Singapore and the western and southern parts of Peninsula Malaysia. Reported to be 366m high, the thick haze caused visibility to be so low that towering skyscrapers could hardly be seen from short distances.
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Haze in Singapore: A problem dating back 40 years
A car driving with full headlights on a brightly-lit street due to the thick haze on the evening of Oct 13, 1972. PHOTO: ST FILE

A prolonged spell of haze has affected Singapore this year, with forest fires in neighbouring Indonesia contributing to the hazy conditions over the past month and a half.
Air quality also reached hazardous levels in late September, which resulted in the unprecedented closure of all primary and secondary schools on Sept 25.

But the haze is not new - records show that the issue has plagued Singapore from as far back as 1972.

Haze gets worse (Oct 14, 1972)
Mystery red haze and orange sun over Singapore (Feb 21, 1975)
Haze covers whole island (Oct 28, 1977)
worst haze in 30 years april 25 1983
blaze partly responsible for the haze in singapore sep 21 1987
haze hits pollution index record of 226
env unveils haze action plan sept 20 1997

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The Long History of the Singapore Haze

A prolonged spell of haze has affected Singapore this year, with forest fires in neighbouring Indonesia contributing to the hazy conditions over the past month and a half.

Air quality also reached hazardous levels in late September, which resulted in the unprecedented closure of all primary and secondary schools on Sept 25.

But the haze is not new - records show that the issue has plagued Singapore from as far back as 1972.

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43 Years and No End in Sight

How long do you stay sick before you consult a doctor? One hour, half a day or one day?

Well, The Straits Times recently showed evidence that Singapore has been grappling with the haze situation for 43 years! The paper also quoted NASA saying this year’s haze will go down in history as the worst ever.

43 long years, but are we close to solving it?

related: Stockholm Syndrome

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Resigned to a life of haze

And it doesn’t look as if the haze will let up soon, even though the problem has spanned over four decades. The earliest instance of haze was documented in 1972 (waaay before I was born). But for as long as I can remember, nothing was done about it except for the occasional meeting among ASEAN nations. One result of the meetings is the Haze Transboundary Pollution Agreement which came about in 2002. Other than that, it appears to me that apart from periodic (and inconsequential) grumbling to Indonesia, Singapore and its citizens seem to have accepted foggy conditions as a way of life.

Even though haze has plagued me since my childhood, this is the first I remember Indonesia taking any substantial action. Indonesia finally ratified the Haze Transboundary Agreement in January and just recently, the country’s President Joko Widodo actually promised an end to a seemingly interminable problem. Give Indonesia three years, he said.

Yet, sentiments on the ground remain pessimistic. Most of the 40 people we talked to remain disillusioned and sceptical about efforts to stop forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan. One uncle, a taxi driver, said: “So big, how to catch all of them?” He was referring to the farmers and companies who carry out the slash-and-burn method to free up forest land for cultivation every year.

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Snapping out of the haze daze

LIKE the proverbial frog gradually being boiled alive, or in this case, slowly choking on the haze, Singapore has been fighting a seemingly futile battle against nature, neighbours and capitalism. Are we doomed to induct the haze season as our unofficial fourth season? In case you’re wondering, the other three seasons are: monsoon, durian and dengue.

In fact, we have been wrestling with this problem for a good 40 years! The PSI hit a record of 400 in 2013 and this year for the first time, schools across the island were shut down last Monday. Sure, these problems might pale in comparison to Indonesia’s – the immediate region around the fires recorded PSI levels of over 2,000 (no, this isn’t a typo)! The fact remains though that Singapore is suffering collateral damage and the fallout is escalating every season.

We have not been hapless bystanders and victims though. Two years ago, Dr Vivan Balakrishnan, Minister of the Environment and Water Resources, hand delivered a letter from PM Lee Hsien Loong to his Indonesian counterpart Balthasar Kambuaya, which was subsequently conveyed to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. This year, once Indonesia finally ratified the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in January, Singapore wielded the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act to serve legal notices to companies identified by Indonesia as fire starters.

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Going beyond the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act

GIVEN the enduring haze problem, is the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act enough to tackle the issue? Two experts, Professors S. Jayakumar and Tommy Koh from the Centre for International Law (CIL), National University of Singapore (NUS), certainly don’t think so. In an op-ed piece published in ST today, the two men proposed three other areas to look at: Asean Agreement of Transboundary Haze Pollution, conservation of wetlands, and holding firms accountable.

Two principles underlie these. First, every state has the sovereign right to use their resources as they deem fit. Second, the state must ensure that the consequences of its activities do not reach beyond its borders and damage the environment of its neighbours. In that regard, “Indonesia is morally and legally responsible for the haze”, the experts said. The two principles establish Singapore’s right to pursue, both morally and legally, the three means to mitigate the issue.

The Asean haze agreement is one such approach. Unlike the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, which is restricted to Singapore, the Asean agreement is binding on countries which are party to the agreement. Part of the agreement requires members to “cooperate and coordinate in order to prevent and to monitor transboundary haze pollution”.

related: SMACK IN THE MIDDLE: Don’t anyhow smoke us leh!

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The Haze

A common perception about The Haze is that it is caused by ‘slash and burn’ practices in Indonesia, mostly Borneo and Sumatra, where land is cleared to make space for crops, like palm oil and paper fibre. This is however, a gross simplification of the issue. ‘Slash and burn’ has been practiced for centuries, not only in Indonesia, but worldwide, and is a quick, dirty and cheap way of clearing land for agricultural purposes. What is burnt is either the original forest, or left-over palm trees after the oil seeds are harvested. While this is a nasty practice, with many bad side-effects for nature, it will not cause a haze as bad as The Haze.

The Haze is a more recent phenomenon. Over the last decades, Indonesia has started to cultivate peat lands. Peat is a mixture of organic materials that have been deposited over generations. Leave them a lot longer and they will become oil. Peat is usually soggy, and swampy. But, for the purpose of growing oil palms, it is drained by digging canals. The remainder is a very dry, highly combustible material: dry peat. One tiny spark will set it ablaze. Peat fires can simmer up to several metres underground, which makes them very difficult to put out. Regular water spraying is not enough. Peat fires can smoulder for weeks, producing a nasty, acrid smoke: The Haze.

Even ‘sustainable palm oil’ producing companies that have abandoned ‘slash and burn’ techniques still drain their peat lands. During the dry season a small campfire or cigarette butt is enough to get a fire going without any bad intentions. There are no longer simply ‘good’ and ‘bad’ palm oil farmers. Palm oil has become a ‘dirty’ crop.

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Indonesia forest fires could become worst on record: Nasa
The skyline in the Central Business District as seen in July 2015 (left) and at about 1.30pm on Oct 1, 2015, when the three-hour PSI was 182. See the full slider below.PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Forest fires blanketing South-east Asia in choking haze are on track to become among the worst on record, scientists warn, with a prolonged dry season hampering efforts to curb the crisis.

Malaysia, Singapore and large expanses of Indonesia have suffered for weeks from acrid smoke billowing from fires on plantations and peatlands that are being illegally cleared by burning.

The crisis grips the region nearly every year during the dry season, flaring diplomatic tensions among the neighbours as flights are grounded, schools close and pollution levels reach hazardous highs.

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The inequality of our haze
Construction workers labor by the side of a road in Singapore

This haze is not a new problem, nor is it the fault of Indonesia alone. As an article by Jessica Cheam in The Straits Times points out, global demand for palm oil and paper products have driven deforestation and both legal and illegal burning, leading to air pollution in the region. A number of companies put under pressure to ensure that they aren’t complicit in such practices either have a presence in Singapore, or are listed on the Singapore stock exchange. Singapore therefore has a part to play in helping to sort this problem out once and for all.

Yet that is a long-term goal that does not deal with the immediate need of Singapore’s residents during this period of unhealthy to even hazardous pollution. Schools were closed as the PSI soared last Thursday night. With the smog coming and going (mostly coming) as it has been, it’s not impossible that schools might have to close again at some point. Many are already trying to work from home on the bad days, going out only when they have to, and even then with masks on. I’ve heard that air purifiers are selling out in many shops, as people try to keep their families as safe as possible from the harmful particles in the air.

Although it’s what we should be doing to protect ourselves, this is not everyone’s experience of the haze. While we stay indoors and turn the aircon on there are workers out there who cannot hide from the polluted air. These people spend most of their day out of doors, cleaning our estates and streets or working on (already dusty) construction sites and shipyards, among other things.

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South East Asia haze: What is slash-and-burn?

What is slash-and-burn? This is a technique used to clear patches of land - forest or peats - for plantation.
Under this practise, farmers cut down part of the vegetation on a patch of land and then set fire to the remainder. When started on peats, the fire is extremely difficult to control or stop.

These fires produce a thick smog and release a huge volume of greenhouse gases. The current haze is being caused by fires in Sumatra in Indonesia, much of which is a giant peat bog.

Indonesia's government has outlawed the use of fire to clear land.
  • Why do they use slash-and-burn?
  • What are they clearing the land for?
  • So, how much land is being cleared for palm oil plantations?
  • If slash-and-burn is illegal, why isn't it being stopped?
  • So who is responsible?
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Haze: 40 times cheaper to burn than use machines, says expert

The slash and burn method of land clearing is 40 times cheaper than using machines, thus making it difficult for Indonesia to stop open burning.

"The underlying factor is cost," said Dr Helena Varkkey of the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Universiti Malaya. Dr Varkkey, whose expertise is in environmental politics, said that based on research done by others, the cost per hectare in using the slash and burn method is approximately US$5 per hectare (S$6.4).

Using machines would cost about US$200.

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Indonesia's Forest Fires Choke Malaysia, Singapore
Indonesian firefighters put out a fire in Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra on Sept. 5. Haze across much of Southeast Asia mostly comes from forest fires on Indonesia’s western island of Sumatra. (ABDUL QODIR/AFP/Getty Images)

The palm plantation owner writes:
“What is causing the fires burning on degraded peat forest and unproductive scrubland in the province of Riau, Sumatra? These are the fires that create the haze affecting Singapore, Malaysia and the province of Riau itself".
From my own experience, I can identify several causes of these annually occurring fires each dry season: 
  • Contractors of palm oil companies who accidentally start fires that quickly get out of control unless management immediately intervenes
  • Small holders practicing slash and burn as a cheap way to clear land for planting intentionally burn their own land
  • Large plantations with poor Environmental, Health and Safety practices have thousands of employees who may behave in unsafe ways like tossing cigarette butts into dry scrub
  • Once a fire begins on peat soil it is difficult control.
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Hazing rituals

Everybody knows the fires are lit as the cheapest way of clearing land for farming or a plantation - especially for oil palm. Some burn out of control and some, on peatland, can smoulder underground for years, flaring up during a prolonged dry spell (linked, this year, to the Pacific-wide El Niño phenomenon). Everybody also knows that the solution is not to find more effective ways to fight the fires, but to stop them being lit in the first place. That means making sure everybody knows how much harm they do, as well as changing the firelighter’s calculation of risk and reward. Peter Holmgren of the Centre for International Forestry Research, with its headquarters in Indonesia, sums up the solution in two words: propaganda and prosecution.

Keeping the home fires burning - The propaganda seems to have worked at least among the big palm-oil producers, most of which now flaunt their green credentials, seeking to have their produce certified as “sustainable”. Since 2011 Indonesia’s government itself has imposed a moratorium on clearing primary forest and peatland for plantations. And the police in Sumatra have this year caught 39 people suspected of illegal land-burning. Yet the remnants of what just a generation ago were vast swathes of virgin rainforest still smoulder and flame. Oil palm remains a lucrative crop. Powerful interests perhaps still profit too much from the fires, and local governments fail to implement orders issued from Jakarta, the capital. The central government may be failing to share information simply because it does not have it.

Even if it is wilfully secretive, ASEAN cannot realistically enforce disclosure. Its guiding principle is not to meddle in its members’ internal affairs. All it can do is embarrass them, and invoke “the ASEAN way” of consensus and co-operation. But Indonesians are suffering the worst of the haze. If their government cannot solve the problem for them, it is unlikely to be shamed into doing so for the sake of gasping Singaporeans and Malaysians.

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'Burning Land....Just for Fun'

The Economist opines that “everybody knows” the forest fires are just set to clear land for plantations, but the picture on the ground is hazier than that. Although almost half of the forest fires take place in large plantation holders’ concessions, conservationist Erik Meijaard argues that the focus on large plantation-holders misses the point. Given that a majority of burning is taking place outside of large concession-holders’ boundaries, sometimes “just for fun,” he says that the government needs to get serious about fire prohibitions and take the total costs of development (whether slash-and-burn agriculture or development of coastal peatlands) into account.

“The key point is that the fire and haze problem in Indonesia is complex, with multiple actors playing a role. Focusing on large concessions alone, which the Indonesian government and also non-government organizations seem to do, is not going to do much to reduce the problem,” writes Meijaard. “Anyone who has ever spent time in Kalimantan or Sumatra during the dry season knows that burning land for agriculture, for hunting, or "just for fun" is a favorite pastime of many.”

Indonesia still has not ratified the ASEAN trans-boundary haze treaty, though it was signed 12 years ago in the wake of serious fires in 1997 and 1998. The Jakarta Post says that Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa is deflecting blame for the fires, talking about consensus and cooperation with neighbors while Indonesia has been unable to control the repeated fire outbreaks.

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ASEAN needs $10 billion to tackle deadly forest fires: scientist

Smog-affected ASEAN countries, especially Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, should allocate up to US$10 billion to cope with unending forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, a scientist said.

“The cost is equal to the estimated total economic losses resulting from the recent smog,” Herry Purnomo, a scientist at CIFOR and professor at Bogor Agricultural University, told

Herry said that Indonesia was estimated to suffer $4 billion in losses this year, in terms of agriculture production, destruction of forest lands, health, transportation, tourism and other economic endeavors.

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That Sinking Feeling, Again

Peatland is not really ‘land’ in the common sense but an unstable mix of water (over 90 percent) and organic matter from partly decomposed plant material. As soon as these peatlands are drained, mostly for oil palm agriculture, these peats start to decompose, ultimately turning into carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases ultimately pushing up sea levels. Importantly, this decomposition inevitably leads to rapid land subsidence, and inundation and loss of agricultural production is common in such areas.

Between 2000 and 2014, the 850,000 hectares study area saw an increase in the cover of industrial oil palm plantations from 6 percent to 47 percent, while the area of swamp forest decreased from 56 percent to less than 16 percent. The remaining area consisted of drained cropland, including smallholder oil palm plantations and degraded forest.

The study found that 42 percent of current industrial plantations in the study area will experience problems associated with reduced drainability by 2034, and 56 percent by 2059. In addition, 18 percent of the area was already frequently flooded in 2009, but this will increase to 27 percent by 2034 and 64 percent by 2109. These high flooding rates basically mean that most of the peat swamp area will lose all of its agricultural production within the next few decades. The report concludes that nearly all peatland in the area is expected to be lost for production, much of it within decades and most within the next 100 years.

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Slash-and-burn is an agricultural technique that involves the cutting and burning of plants in forests or woodlands to create fields. It is subsistence agriculture that typically uses little technology. It is typically key in shifting cultivation agriculture, and in transhumance livestock herding.

Old terms for slash-and-burn in English include assarting, swidden, and fire-fallow cultivation. Today the term slash-and-burn is mainly associated with tropical rain forests. Slash-and-burn is used by 200 million to 500 million people worldwide. In 2004 it was estimated that, in Brazil alone, 500,000 small farmers cleared an average of one hectare of forest per year each. The technique is not sustainable in large populations, because without the trees, the soil quality becomes too poor to support crops. The farmers would have to move on to virgin forest and repeat the process. Methods such as Inga alley farming have been proposed as alternatives to this ecological destruction.

Historically, slash-and-burn cultivation has been practiced throughout much of the world, in grasslands as well as woodlands. During the Neolithic Revolution, which included agricultural advancements, groups of hunter-gatherers domesticated various plants and animals, permitting them to settle down and practice agriculture, which provides more nutrition per hectare than hunting and gathering. This happened in the river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Due to this decrease in food from hunting, as human populations increased, agriculture became more important. Some groups could easily plant their crops in open fields along river valleys, but others had forests blocking their farming land.

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Major atmospheric emissions from peat fires in Southeast Asia during non-drought years: evidence from the 2013 Sumatran fires

Trans-boundary haze events in Southeast Asia are associated with large forest and peatland fires in Indonesia. These episodes of extreme air pollution usually occur during drought years induced by climate anomalies from the Pacific (El Niño Southern Oscillation) and Indian Oceans (Indian Ocean Dipole).

However, in June 2013 – a non-drought year – Singapore's 24-hr Pollutants Standards Index reached an all-time record 246 (rated “very unhealthy”). Here, we show using remote sensing, rainfall records and other data, that the Indonesian fires behind the 2013 haze followed a two-month dry spell in a wetter-than-average year. These fires were short-lived (one week) and limited to a localized area in Central Sumatra (1.6% of Indonesia): burning an estimated 163,336 ha, including 137,044 ha (84%) on peat.

Most burning was confined to deforested lands (82%; 133,216 ha). The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during this brief, localized event were considerable: 172 ± 59 Tg CO2-eq (or 31 ± 12 Tg C), representing 5–10% of Indonesia's mean annual GHG emissions for 2000–2005. Our observations show that extreme air pollution episodes in Southeast Asia are no longer restricted to drought years. We expect major haze events to be increasingly frequent because of ongoing deforestation of Indonesian peatlands.

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Fire emissions and regional air quality impacts from fires in oil palm, timber, and logging concessions in Indonesia

Fires associated with agricultural and plantation development in Indonesia impact ecosystem services and release emissions into the atmosphere that degrade regional air quality and contribute to greenhouse gas concentrations. In this study, we estimate the relative contributions of the oil palm, timber (for wood pulp and paper), and logging industries in Sumatra and Kalimantan to land cover change, fire activity, and regional population exposure to smoke concentrations.

Concessions for these three industries cover 21% and 49% of the land area in Sumatra and Kalimantan respectively, with the highest overall area in lowlands on mineral soils instead of more carbon-rich peatlands. In 2012, most remaining forest area was located in logging concessions for both islands, and for all combined concessions, there was higher remaining lowland and peatland forest area in Kalimantan (45% and 46%, respectively) versus Sumatra (20% and 27%, respectively). Emissions from all combined concessions comprised 41% of total fire emissions (within and outside of concession boundaries) in Sumatra and 27% in Kalimantan for the 2006 burning season, which had high fire activity relative to decadal emissions. Most fire emissions were observed in concessions located on peatlands and non-forested lowlands, the latter of which could include concessions that are currently under production, cleared in preparation for production, or abandoned lands. For the 2006 burning season, timber concessions from Sumatra (47% of area and 88% of emissions) and oil palm concessions from Kalimantan (33% of area and 67% of emissions) contributed the most to concession-related fire emissions from each island.

Although fire emissions from concessions were higher in Kalimantan, emissions from Sumatra contributed 63% of concession-related smoke concentrations for the population-weighted region because fire sources were located closer to population centers. In order to protect regional public health, our results highlight the importance of limiting the use of fire by the timber and oil palm industries, particularly on concessions that contain peatlands and non-forest, by such methods as improving monitoring systems, local-level management, and enforcement of existing fire bans.

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Get Your Facts Right on Indonesia's Haze Problem

The key point is that the fire and haze problem in Indonesia is complex, with multiple actors playing a role. Focusing on large concessions alone, which the Indonesian government and also non-government organizations seem to do, is not going to do much to reduce the problem.

If the president wants “no more forest fires next year,” his government needs to get realistic about real causes and think about how to address these effectively.

Anyone who has ever spent time in Kalimantan or Sumatra during the dry season knows that burning land for agriculture, for hunting, or "just for fun" is a favorite pastime of many. Most districts have laws in place that prohibit this kind of burning, but the big issue is that no one pays any heed to these laws and consequently they are largely ignored.

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These Singaporean wedding couples really made the most of the haze

It’s your wedding day — often referred to as the best day of a couple’s lives, it’s natural to want everything to be as perfect as possible.

But again, as every married couple knows, you can plan everything and every detail to the second, but you can expect that pretty much nothing goes according to plan.

Like the weather, for instance, for all the couples getting married this month.

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The Straits Times delves into its archives for a look at some of the more prominent haze events
A car driving with full headlights on a brightly-lit street due to the thick haze on the evening of Oct 13, 1972. PHOTO: ST FILE

A heavy haze hanging over Orchard Road on Oct 10, 1972. PHOTO: ST FILE

The city centre enveloped in a reddish haze at about noon on Feb 20, 1975

A view of the haze- and mist-hit Jalan Kolam Ayer area at around 1.30pm on Oct 27, 1977

A plane taking off from Changi Airport amid hazy conditions on Sept 7, 1982. PHOTO: ST FILE

Singapore's CBD shrouded in haze on the evening of Sept 18, 1997. PHOTO: ST FILE

A pedestrian attempting to cross a street thick with haze in western Singapore on Sept 18, 1997. PHOTO: ST FILE
Cable cars to Sentosa disappear from view as the three-hour PSI hit 401 at noon on June 21, 2013. PHOTO: ST FILE
Heavy haze over a street in Whampoa estate at around 1am on Sept 25, 2015

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