SINGAPORE May 21 Singapore is approaching its
yearly "haze" season, when smoke from forest clearing in
Indonesia chokes the air, with this year likely to be worse than
2013's record pollution thanks to lack of action in Jakarta and
an expected El Nino weather pattern.
The prosperous city-state, which prides itself on its clean
air, was shrouded in heavy smog from slash-and-burn clearances
on the neighbouring Indonesian island of Sumatra last June which
sent its air pollution index to a record high.
One year on, and an election-distracted government in
Indonesia has still not ratified the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN) 2002 Agreement on Transboundary Haze
Pollution, and fires continue to burn in Sumatra.
That is despite outrage in Singapore as well as
environmental groups putting pressure on Jakarta. Fires are used
to clear land on plantations and can burn for weeks because of
peat deposits below the surface.
There is also a growing likelihood of an El Nino weather
pattern this year, meaning Singapore, as well as parts of
Indonesia and Malaysia, could be set for months of intense haze
with a knock-on effect on health and business, especially
A strong El Nino, marked by a warming of the surface of the
Pacific, can cause severe drought in Australia, Southeast Asia
and India, while drenching other parts of the world such as the
U.S. Midwest and Brazil in rain.
"If we get four to six months of dry period in Southeast
Asia starting from June, we could be in for a very difficult
period, if companies' and people's behaviour do not change,"
Singapore Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told a
Frustrated by the lack of progress, Singapore is taking
matters into its own hands by proposing a new law that aims to
punish individuals and companies outside its borders that are
responsible for polluting its air.
That's expected to be tabled in parliament later this year.
Legal experts hail the bill as a bold move, but question how it
will be implemented.
Finding who is responsible for the haze is hard given the
lack of evidence like maps showing who owns the land where fires
are burning. Both Indonesia and Malaysia have refused to share
clear and updated land use and concession maps so far.
Bringing a prosecution in Singapore courts will be even
"The basic evidential inquiry needed to resolve the problem
- i.e. to find out who is setting fires to whose land - cannot
even be conducted," said Alan Tan, professor at the Faculty of
Law and Centre for International Law at the National University
of Singapore. "Let alone the more complex tasks of actually
prosecuting perpetrators or managing land use conflicts for the
Two of the world's largest palm oil companies - Wilmar
International Ltd and Golden Agri-Resources Ltd
- have been applauded for committing to no
deforestation policies after criticism in the past.
Alongside the palm oil industry, paper and pulp companies
have also been blamed for haze.
Indonesia's Riau province declared a state of emergency in
February as haze from raging forest fires disrupted flights and
marine navigation and tens of thousands fell sick with
respiratory problems. The airport in the provincial capital
closed for more than three weeks.
"The task force the president sent to the field was able to
quench the fire but not solve the fundamental problem," Heru
Prasetyo, head of Indonesia's REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from
Deforestation and Degradation), told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Toh in SINGAPORE and Michael
Taylor in JAKARTA; Editing by Nick Macfie)