leftrightWednesday, May 21, 2008
May 21, 2008
Haze expected to hit harder and faster this year

By Tania Tan Straits Time

THE haze could hit harder and sooner than expected - it is only a matter of when. All it will take for the acrid pall to blow towards Singapore, is a change in wind direction - unless bushfires burning there are quelled soon.

The National Environment Agency's (NEA) forecast said that south-westerly winds could blow smoke haze from Sumatran fires here within the next two weeks. Light, variable winds may or may not work in our favour, said Associate Professor Matthias Roth from the National University of Singapore's geography department. 'It's unpredictable.'

In any case, south-westerly winds are expected to strengthen during the June-September monsoon season, added Prof Roth - bringing the acrid pall back over Singapore. But one thing is for sure - slash and burning in Indonesia has started.

Hundreds of hotspots have appeared over the past few days, reported the Indonesian meteorological service. Over 850 hotspots were counted last week(May 12-18), up from just 130 the week before (May 5-11), said the NEA.

Singapore experienced its worst haze crisis in over a decade in 2006, when the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hit an unhealthy 150. And signs could be pointing to a repeat of that year. Only time will tell. Said Mr Kwoh, 'Watch out for the next two months.'

From Mother of Six

The Asean (Association of South-east Asian Nations) Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was signed in 2002. Yet not surprising, only Indonesia, where most of the fire occur, is the only country that has not ratified it.

According to Mr Alvin Lie, a legislator from the National Mandate Party, the benefits of ratifying the pact are smaller compared to the obligations. With ratification, Indonesia would be obligated to introduce legislation and measures to promote zero-burning policy.

Before Indonesia’s neighbours begin to criticise Indonesia for dragging it feet, we must understand Indonesia’s point of view. Banning or curbing clearing the forest by fire might prove to be an unpopular legislation.
The late Indonesian President Soeharto renewed a ban on this practice of slash-and-burn (S&B) as a means of land clearing in 1997. But this practice continued till today and prosecutions take time. Thus few small holding farmers have stuck to this ban.

Clearly the advantages of using S&B out weight the prospects of being charged in court.

S & B clear space while the ash acts as a fertilizer. In addition, burning allows the seedling to grow faster as the soil structure is improved and weeds are prevented from growing. Finally, this method reduced the possibility of diseases and pests as the burning acts as a form of sterilization.

Unless alternatives to S&B bring about similar benefits, Indonesia farmers will not be motivated to stop this practice.

For example, clearing the land and removing the wood only clear the space for the farmers without the additional benefits that S&B brings. Farmers would then have to spend money on fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides which would add to the cost of production. Thus, the possibility of farmers abandoning this method or considering an alternative method is slim.

Yet, S&B is known to deplete forests and biodiversity, contribute as much as 25 % to global warming. Each year in August, the farmers in Indonesia are expected to clear the land using this method.

What can Asean do to motivate the farmers to stop S&B to clear land?

One possibility is to bring direct foreign investment (DFI) in manufacturing into the agricultural areas while consolidating the small holding farms own by these farmers. Once the farmers earn more income by working in the factories, they would be willing to give up being farmers. Meanwhile their farms can be consolidated so that these farms can be operated in an extensive, large scale operation like the plantations in Malaysia.

Malaysia does not use the S&B method to clear the land and have been able to make plantation a profitable and viable economic alternative compared to small scale farming.

Perhaps Singapore should take the lead by bring more DFI into Indonesia. It could provide training for the farmers to equip them with the skills to work in the manufacturing sectors while other Asean members like Malaysia and Brunei can start to invest in Indonesia. Concerned developed countries like USA, Britain and the European Union can now play a direct role in helping to reduce the carbon footprint of Indonesia by following suit.

It has been demonstrated empirically that as a country develop, the portion of its population working in the primary agricultural sector will decrease.

If Asian can collectively offer this carrot, I am sure that Indonesia will find that the benefits of ratifying the pact are bigger compared to the obligations that signing this pact will bring.

Fighting the haze can no longer be seen as a national issue with Indonesia being the sole fire fighter. Neither can we focus on fighter fighting strategies like mobilising resources to fight the fires triggered by S&B practices.

Unless there is a significant wind of change, we can expect the fire in Indonesia to continue burning.

A Clear Solution to a Hazy Problem Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Published in Today

"Tigers and elephants are fleeing the burning jungles. Birds are falling from the murky skies. School children are fainting at their desks. Ships are colliding at sea."

"As a filthy haze from vast Indonesian forest fires continues to darken the sky across seven South-east Asian nations, illness, ecological destruction and economic hardship are growing... "

After reading the above extract from The New York Times, you can be forgiven for thinking it describes the haze we have been experiencing over the past few days.

In fact, this article was published on Oct 26, 1997. Nine years have passed and the solution to this ecological disaster still seems hazy (pun intended).After surviving the 1997 haze, we should have put in place a set of protocols agreed upon by Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia to prevent this from recurring.

This was partially achieved when the Asean (Association of South-east Asian Nations) Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was signed in 2002.

Its objective is to prevent and monitor haze pollution as a result of land and/or forest fires which should be mitigated, through concerted national efforts and regional and international cooperation.

The problem is that as of August 2005, only seven out of the 10 member countries have ratified the agreement. Indonesia, where the fires originate, has yet to ratify the treaty.

If nothing more is done, the same excerpt quoted above might be used to describe the situation five, 10, even 15 years later.Apart from the short-term effect of the haze where the effect on human beings is most noticeable, the haze also has long-term serious consequences.According to Mr Klaus Toepfer, the United Nations Environment Programme's executive director, a study by 250 scientists released in 2002 showed that "the thick brown haze which forms over much of Asia during the tropical dry season could have profound effects on human health, crop yield and rainfall patterns in the Asian region".

It is reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the tropical Indian Ocean surface by as much as 10 per cent, with a larger percentage reduction over the Indian subcontinent.Up till now, the haze has been dealt with as a national problem of Indonesia.

It is easy to point the finger at corrupt local officials who turn a blind eye to allow plantation owners to continue clearing their land by setting fire to it.Similarly, it is easy to send satellite photographs of the hotspots and expect Indonesia to take action against the plantation owners, or to offer fire-fighting equipment.Perhaps there is a need to change the way the haze problem is approached.

As the Asean agreement so aptly indicated, the haze does not respect national boundaries. It goes where the wind blows. Hence, the ownership of this problem should not rest on Indonesia's shoulders alone.

But what can we do as we do not wish to intrude on Indonesia's sovereignty?Perhaps a fund can be set up to provide plantation owners and farmers with incentives to clear the forest in other ways. An educational campaign could be embarked on to get farmers to look beyond their individual needs to the collective need of Asia.This would be difficult.

But if an effort is not made to change mindsets, the haze problem will continue. The recurrence of the haze has shown that this crisis cannot be solved at the individual or national level alone.Are we ready to play a more active role, or do we continue to be content to breath in air with a PSI that exceeds 100, as it did on Saturday?The choice is clear.

[Mayflower] [11:10 PM]




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