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Singapore effort to fight haze ‘almost futile’

Singapore effort to fight haze ‘almost futile’
Members of Singapore's Air Force and Singapore's Civil Defence Force push a bambi bucket near a Chinook helicopter during preparation to fight forest fires on Oct 11, 2015. Photo: Reuters
Published: 8:45 PM, October 30, 2015
Updated: 7:33 AM, October 31, 2015
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SINGAPORE — By the time Singapore’s fire-fighting team headed to Indonesia this month, “nothing short of an act of God”, like rain, could have stopped the fires altogether, said Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli, as he urged early action so that such efforts do not become “almost a futile exercise”.

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

'Nothing short of an act of God', like rain, could have stopped the fires altogether

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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