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Major haze episodes in region ‘likely to be more frequent’

SINGAPORE — Major haze events in South-east Asia are expected to be increasingly frequent due to ongoing deforestation of peatlands in Indonesia and extreme air pollution episodes are no longer restricted to drought years.

Major haze episodes in region ‘likely to be more frequent’

The haze situation as of June 21, 2013 as seen near the Sports Hub in Kallang. Photo: Ernest Chua

SINGAPORE — Major haze events in South-east Asia are expected to be increasingly frequent due to ongoing deforestation of peatlands in Indonesia and extreme air pollution episodes are no longer restricted to drought years.

These are the conclusions of recent research led by a scientist from the Centre for International Forestry Research, who yesterday said peatlands and overlapping claims to land ownership in Indonesia were factors behind the haze problem. Peatlands are wetlands consisting of partially decayed vegetation matter that release vast amounts of carbon when drained and burnt.

Dr David Gaveau was among 40 non-governmental and corporate representatives, as well as academics, who took part in the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) think-tank’s Haze Roundtable event.

In the study published in August, Dr Gaveau and his co-authors noted that all major South-east Asia haze events from 1960 to 2006 have occurred during years of unusually low rainfall induced by El Nino or a related phenomenon. Although there were no regional climate anomalies last year, fires in Indonesia still generated air pollution that exceeded the previous 1997-1998 record over Singapore.

Fires in the country last year were short-lived and confined to recently deforested peatlands in Sumatra’s Riau province, but generated a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gases and smoke in the span of a week — equal to the emissions of 50 million cars in a year — because of the peat, they found.

The authors studied a three-million hectare area in Riau and found that 52 per cent of the burnt area fell within concessions allocated to companies for plantation development. They called for protection of the remaining peatlands and a halt to further drainage.

Roundtable participants yesterday noted other factors hampering solutions to the haze problem. Communities in Malaysia and Indonesia sometimes had only peatlands to farm on and some local government policies in Indonesia encourage the exploitation and conversion of forests. Awareness should be raised among individual farmers and they should be provided with alternatives for land clearance, participants said.

On the national level, they largely welcomed Indonesia’s Parliament agreeing in September to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

On its part, Singapore could take a leaf from European countries and pledge to import only sustainable palm oil, one suggested.

The SIIA also announced plans to launch a haze-tracking portal combining real-time hot spots, wind direction, and land-use and concession maps in the first quarter of next year.

Noting that the Haze Monitoring System adopted by the Association of South-east Asian Nations last October had stalled over concerns related to the sharing of concession maps, SIIA chairman Simon Tay said: “Until ASEAN governments can move things forward with a joint haze-monitoring system, there is a need to plug an information gap in collaboration with our NGO and corporate partners.”

World Resources Institute’s project manager Fred Stolle said the SIIA’s portal would complement its own Global Forest Watch platform. Research non-governmental organisations, by making data open and transparent, can push governments to do the same, he said.

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