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No haze for Singapore this year from Sumatran fires: Governor

SINGAPORE — Despite forecasts of a hotter and longer dry season, the Governor of South Sumatra has pledged that Singapore and the region will not experience haze arising from forest fires in the Indonesian province this year.

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SINGAPORE — Despite forecasts of a hotter and longer dry season, the Governor of South Sumatra has pledged that Singapore and the region will not experience haze arising from forest fires in the Indonesian province this year.

“This year is more dangerous than 2015 because the dry season is longer and … quite hot compared with 2015. But I guarantee there is no fire, there is no haze,” said Governor Alex Noerdin during a panel discussion at the Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources on Thursday (April 6). It was organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

Transboundary haze, a long-standing problem in South-east Asia, is largely caused by the drainage of carbon-rich peatland, as well as fires started by farmers and companies to clear land for agriculture and industrial plantations.

El Nino, which causes dry weather conditions, is expected to return in the later half of the year, and this could result in the escalation of hotspot activities. Between September and November 2015, Singapore experienced its worst haze episode, where the Pollutant Standards Index had hit hazardous levels. 

Last year, however, the skies here were largely clear of the haze partly due to the wetter weather. 

There were just over a hundred hotspots in Indonesia, compared with thousands in 2015.

Speaking to the media separately after the panel discussion, Mr Noerdin noted that during the raging fires in 2015, at least five countries, including Singapore, had stepped in to help extinguish the fires in South Sumatra.

Since then, his team has been making preparations and efforts to prevent such fires. 

They include canal-blocking, which will raise water levels to sustain the water composition in the dry peat soil and prevent it from burning easily. 

Villagers were trained and given the necessary equipment to extinguish and prevent fires, as well as shown the alternatives to the slash-and-burn method to clear land.

And they have succeeded in these efforts, said Mr Noerdin, noting that there were no fires last year.

“This year, we are just strengthening our efforts. I guarantee that there (will be) no fires, that means no haze, from South Sumatra province this year and next year, and the next year,” he added. 

In his keynote address at the dialogue, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli noted that provincial governments play a critical role in tackling the haze problem.

The South Sumatra province has taken an exemplary role by adopting a multi-stakeholder approach towards the sustainable management of forested lands, he added. 

For instance, more than 2,700 independent smallholders, whose lands cover 5,500ha in South Sumatra, received the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification in June last year. 

This makes them  the world’s largest individual group of independent smallholders to be RSPO-certified. 

Malaysian Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, who also delivered a keynote address, told the media later that while his country has not dropped the idea of adopting a law similar to Singapore’s Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, there are issues to be worked out.

In 2015, Malaysia said it was considering enacting similar laws, and Dr Wan Junaidi said on Thursday that the Malaysian Attorney-General’s Chambers had discussed this with its Singaporean counterpart.

However, the implementation of such transboundary laws is not as simple as Malaysia had initially thought. 

For example, there is the question of  how owners of errant firms will not be caught as long as they do not enter the countries implementing such laws. 

“If we have the law, and the law is not effective, it doesn’t mean anything to us. Then, it becomes a political problem for us, (with people asking) why are you not enforcing the law,” he said. 

Instead, Malaysia felt that diplomacy was a better option, such as meeting with countries in the region to discuss possible solutions, Dr Wan Junaidi added.

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