Singapore Smog Reaches ‘Hazardous’ All-Time High on Fires

Singapore’s smog level reached a all-time high today, as officials head to Jakarta to discuss ways to stem the pollution caused by forest burning on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index jumped to 371 at 1 p.m., the National Environment Agency, or NEA, said on its website. That exceeded the 321 at 10 p.m. yesterday evening, which was a record, according to Channel NewsAsia. A reading above 300 is deemed “hazardous.”

The Malay Peninsula has been plagued for decades by forest fires in Sumatra to the west and Kalimantan on Borneo island to the east. The current smog could hurt the city-state’s services industries such as tourism, according to Wai Ho Leong, an economist at Barclays Plc in Singapore. The Gardens by the Bay, a park in central Singapore, said on its website it will close some attractions if the pollution index is above 100.

A week of “unhealthy” readings may shut down leisure travel into Singapore for at least a month, maybe longer, Leong said. “That disruption could mean roughly $1 billion in terms of reduced shop takings, empty rooms, fewer flights.”

Officials from Indonesia and Singapore will meet in Jakarta today to discuss the haze, Straits Times newspaper reported, citing Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare Agung Laksono. The Indonesian forestry ministry plans to induce rain by seeding clouds, Channel NewsAsia reported.

Masked Soldiers

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a Twitter post he’s “dismayed” with the pollution index yesterday and plans to meet his ministers “first thing” in the morning to update plans on the situation before briefing the press. Singapore Armed Forces stopped all outfield training indefinitely and all soldiers have been given masks, the Straits Times reported today.

At an emergency press conference held at 11:30 p.m. last night, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said nobody should pollute and make money at others’ expense, according to a Twitter post by Channel NewsAsia. Singapore has convened a taskforce and will use high-resolution satellite pictures to link specific hotspots to companies involved, he said, according to Channel NewsAsia.

A stop-work order may be issued by the Ministry of Manpower depending on the seriousness of the situation, Balakrishnan said at the press conference, according to Channel NewsAsia. Schools may also close if the situation persists when they are due to reopen, he was reported as saying.

Safety Measures

Lower visibility from the smog has prompted Singapore’s Changi Airport to increase the time between takeoffs and landings of aircraft as a precautionary safety measures, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore said in an e-mailed response to Bloomberg.

SMRT Corp. suspended all maintenance works on train tracks yesterday night as it issued “N95” masks to staff at depots, Gerard Koh, vice-president of human resources at the company, said in an e-mail to Bloomberg. N95 masks, which are thicker and better fit the face, were widely used during outbreaks of H5N1 bird flu and SARS.

A measure of fine particulates also published by the NEA was more than 10 times the healthy level given in World Health Organization guidelines.

Health Hazard

The concentration of PM2.5, fine particulates that pose the greatest health risks because they can enter the bloodstream, was in a range between 232 and 291 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a 24-hour NEA reading as at 12 p.m. WHO recommends exposure to concentrations of no more than 25. The PSI measures PM10, according to the NEA website.

PM2.5 refers to particulates less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter while PM10 refers to those of less than 10 micrometers, according to definitions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Singapore’s Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam emphasized the urgency of the situation and the country’s commitment to help fight the fires during a telephone call with Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa on June 18, according to a statement by the government.

“Minister Shanmugam and Minister Marty agreed that bilateral and regional cooperation could be further strengthened to tackle the haze problem,” the government said in the statement.

Reassurances Offered

Balakrishnan also spoke with his counterpart, Minister Balthasar Kambuaya to share relevant information to improve monitoring of hotspots and land clearing activities, the city-state’s government said.

The two Singapore ministers asked the Indonesian government to share the names of the companies involved in “illegal burning, though primary responsibility to take legal and enforcement actions against these companies lies with Indonesia as they have clearly violated Indonesian laws within Indonesian jurisdiction,” the Singapore government said.

“Both Minister Shanmugam and Minister Balakrishnan referred to the claim by an Indonesian forestry ministry official in the media that Malaysian and Singapore palm oil companies that had invested in Indonesia may be responsible for starting the fires in Riau,” according to the statement.

Natalegawa and Kambuaya offered their reassurances that Indonesia would address the haze, the Singapore government said.

South Malaysia

“There’s still the need to show that this is something the Singapore government finds disconcerting, that it does affect the health of Singaporeans as well as the economy,” said Eugene Tan, assistant law professor at Singapore Management University.

“History suggests that not much will be done,” said Ang Peng Hwa, a media law professor at Nanyang Technological University who runs community group Haze Elimination Action Team. “But not much is better than nothing. And at this stage of severity of the haze, we will take not much.”

Air pollution also reached “hazardous” levels in Malaysia’s Johor, which borders Singapore, according to the Department of Environment’s website. Air was “unhealthy” in Malacca, moderate in most other parts of country, according to 7 a.m. readings. Children at kindergartens in South Malaysia were sent home, according to The Star.

‘Zero Burning’

Malaysia wants Indonesia to take action against errant planters, Nurmala Abdul Rahim, secretary-general of Malaysia’s Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry, said.

“The accusation is that it’s the Malaysians who are planting oil palm in Indonesia that’s causing this,” she said in an interview. “Whether they are Malaysians or non-Malaysians, the Indonesian authorities need to take action against them. On our side, we cannot do it because its a sovereignty issue.”

Palm oil companies with operations in Indonesia include Jakarta-listed PT Astra Agro Lestari, Singapore-listed Wilmar International Ltd. and Malaysia’s Sime Darby Bhd, the world’s biggest listed palm oil producer. Firms contacted by Bloomberg said they did not burn land.

“All our replanting, we do zero burning -- that has been the practice since the ’80s,” Franki Anthony Dass, executive vice president at Sime Darby’s plantation unit, said by telephone. “All our operations worldwide, there is zero burning. Anyone caught burning, we take very strict action on the people in charge.”

Before Replanting

Sime Darby has about 78,000 hectares planted in Sumatra, Dass said. The firm shreds old trees before replanting.

Wilmar and Cargill Inc. said in e-mails they also had a zero-burning policy. Golden Agri-Resources Ltd. contractors who clear land must comply with its “zero-burning policy,” the company said in an e-mailed statement.

Indonesia is the world’s biggest palm oil producer. Plantations have expanded rapidly in the past decade as demand grew for an oil used for cooking, soap and biscuits. The government on May 13 extended a policy of keeping virgin rain-forest off-limits to the palm industry, though environmentalists say enforcement has been patchy.

Large tracts of peat lands, around the coastal city of Dumai facing Singapore have caught fire, leading to this week’s smog, according to The Straits Times, which cited Indonesian officials. Farmers are also burning plantations to clear land for the next sowing season, the report said.

The fires hit a peak in 1997, when haze cost the economies of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore an estimated $3.5 billion, based on figures published in a report by the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia.

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