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Singapore effort to fight haze ‘almost futile’

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”.

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

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.

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.

Yesterday (Oct 29), the World Resources Institute said that emissions from this year’s fires have reached 1.62 billion metric tonnes of CO2, bumping Indonesia from the sixth-largest emitter in the world up to the fourth-largest in just six weeks.

Mr Masagos reiterated that Singapore is not interested in taking its friends to task, but is focused on companies with “egregious behaviour”. Despite air quality improving in recent days, consumers should buy from environmentally responsible companies and not let their guard down. With greater attention on them, some companies have become more worried about their reputation and access to capital and markets, Mr Masagos added.

Separately this week, Asia Pulp and Paper – one of the companies from which the Singapore authorities have requested information – provided an update on its fire management in South Sumatra. It is helping Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) by supplying two water-bombing planes with 12,000-litre capacity to South Sumatra, and its suppliers are blocking canals to increase water levels in critical areas of operation.

APP previously announced it would retire 7,000 hectares of plantations in Riau and South Sumatra to protect peatlands — carbon-rich wetlands that burn easily when drained.

APP’s sister company, Singapore-listed palm oil company Golden-Agri Resources also told TODAY that less than 0.5 per cent of its 484,500 hectares of plantations in Kalimantan and Sumatra has been burnt this episode. In Riau province, the proportion is even smaller, at 0.007 per cent, said Mr Agus Purnomo, its managing director, Sustainability and Strategic Stakeholder Engagement. The low percentage of burnt land is because the company is not opening up new land for plantations, instead working with small farmers who want to develop their land without burning.

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