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Haze likely to return to Singapore from next month

SINGAPORE — The haze is possibly returning to shroud our skies from next month and the El Nino effect — characterised by severely dry and hot conditions and anticipated in the second half of the year — could worsen the air quality. However, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan is confident Singaporeans are better prepared to deal with the situation.

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SINGAPORE — The haze is possibly returning to shroud our skies from next month and the El Nino effect — characterised by severely dry and hot conditions and anticipated in the second half of the year — could worsen the air quality. However, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan is confident Singaporeans are better prepared to deal with the situation.

That the haze will hit Singapore earlier than usual this year signalled a warning that Singaporeans have to be prepared, he said.

However, pointing to developments since the Republic weathered its worst haze episode last June, Dr Balakrishnan said just being prepared makes a world of difference.

A new air-quality reporting system that better reflects visibility levels during a haze has been in place since last month and, earlier this month, free N95 masks were distributed to all 1.2 million households here, as part of a community programme by the philanthropic arm of Temasek Holdings to get Singaporeans better prepared for emergencies.

Commenting on the effect of these moves, Dr Balakrishnan told reporters on the sidelines of a community event yesterday: “We got all the systems in place to keep people informed, up to date — literally on an hourly basis. There won’t be a mad rush for masks this time because literally every household already has masks.

“If you are prepared, you are in a much stronger frame of mind to deal with whatever that comes our way,” he added.

When Singapore was in the throes of the haze last year — it hit a record-high Pollutant Standards Index reading of 401 on June 21 — many flocked to stores to buy masks, leading to a supply crunch.

Since then, the Republic has been pushing countries — including Indonesia — to share the land use and concession maps needed for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) haze-monitoring system to work, but to no avail.

The S$100,000 system, developed by Singapore, aims to identify responsible parties using hot-spot data and satellite images to pinpoint illegal burning activities.

However, it requires accurate concession maps that can specify the companies or entities with rights to carry out logging or plantation activities on a particular piece of land.

At a haze meeting attended by ASEAN environment ministers in Brunei last month, Dr Balakrishnan expressed his frustration over little headway being made on that front, adding that negotiations had been tough, with “contentious moments”.

Although outgoing Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyonohad, in March, given soldiers and local officials in Riau three weeks to extinguish forest fires — a move welcomed by Singapore — Jakarta has yet to ratify the ASEAN agreement on transboundary haze pollution.

Most recently, at the ASEAN Summit earlier this month, Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam again urged Jakarta’s cooperation in ratifying the agreement.

Yesterday, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore must make its own preparations despite all the efforts on the diplomatic front.

“On the environmental front, it is not possible to make sure nothing ever happens to Singapore. There will be problems from time to time, whether it is haze or dengue, there will be these challenges,” he added.

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