From: Rhett Butler
Published June 18, 2013 08:58 AM

Singapore chokes on haze from deforestation fires

Singapore and Malaysian officials have asked Indonesia to take "urgent measures" to address forest fires in Sumatra that are sending choking haze northward, reports AFP.

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Singapore's air pollution index is at the worst level since 2006, when Sumatra last experienced severe fires. The city-state's Pollutant Standards Index on Monday topped 150, well above the "unhealthy" threshold of 100, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA) web site.

"NEA has alerted the Indonesian Ministry of Environment on the haze situation experienced in Singapore, and urged the Indonesian authorities to look into urgent measures to mitigate the transboundary haze occurrence," said the agency in a statement. "NEA will continue to monitor the situation closely and provide further updates when necessary."

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak complained about the fires on his Facebook page: "The haze situation in Malaysia is going to worsen in the coming days with winds carrying smoke from hot spots in Sumatra."

But Indonesian officials attempted to deflect some of the blame for the fires, which are typically used by companies to clear forests and peatlands for oil palm plantations. Many of these companies are owned by firms based in Singapore and Malaysia.

"We hope the governments of Malaysia and Singapore will tell their investors to adopt proper measures so we can solve this problem together," said Hadi Daryanto, the second-in-command at Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry.

Forest fires and haze have become an annual problem in the region over the past 30 years as vast swathes of forest have been degraded by logging and converted to plantations. While the use of fire for land-clearing is illegal, the practice in nonetheless widespread, with satellites picking up hundreds of hotspots in a daily basis during the dry season, which typically runs through October.

Haze in the region has been associated with a number of ills, including increased incidence of respiratory problems. Severe haze can affect transportation networks, navigation, and tourism. The cost of the 1997-1998 haze — triggered by large-scale fires across Sumatra and Borneo that were exacerbated by dry El Nino conditions — was estimated in the billions of dollars to regional economies.

In response to the 1997-1998 crisis, ASEAN members set up the Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution, which called for collective action to tackle forest fires. Yet Indonesia never ratified the agreement and other members have been slow to enact reforms that would hinder conversion of forests for plantation development.

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Forest fire image via Shutterstock.

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