Singapore smog from Indonesia fire 'could last weeks'

Singapore smog, before and after

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Singapore's prime minister has warned that the haze engulfing the city-state could last for weeks, as air pollution soared to record levels.

The pollution standards index peaked at 371 on Thursday, breaking previous records and well above hazardous levels, before falling to about 300.

The haze is the result of forest fires started by farmers clearing land on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The issue has sparked accusations between the two neighbours.

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's Environment and Water Resources Minister, wrote on his Facebook wall that he would demand "definitive action" from Jakarta.

Karishma Vaswani explains Indonesia's plan to "induce rain"

"No country or corporation has the right to pollute the air at the expense of Singaporeans' health and wellbeing," he said.

However, Indonesian Minister for People's Welfare Agung Laksono said that Singapore was "behaving like a child".

"This is not what the Indonesian nation wants, it is because of nature," he said.

Environment officials from the two nations have been holding an emergency meeting in Jakarta, to discuss the issue.

A couple take a picture of the smog-filled skyline in Singapore on 19 June 2013 Haze caused by Indonesian forest fires is continuing to choke Singapore
Men watch the sun set in the hazy skyline of the Singapore Flyer on 18 June 2013 On Thursday the pollution standards index (PSI) hit 371, breaking all previous records. A reading of more than 300 means the air is officially "hazardous".
Partygoers line up to enter a nightclub at Marina Bay Sands, as haze shrouds the skyline of Singapore in the background on 19 June 2013 The haze, which has obscured much of Singapore's skyline, has brought with it a strong smell of burnt wood.
Commuters cover their mouths as they wait to cross a road in the haze in Singapore on 20 June 2013 Many residents have donned face masks amid government warnings that those who can should stay at home.
Motorists travel through haze in Pekanbaru, Indonesia's Riau province on 20 June 2013 The haze, caused by slash-and-burn land clearance on Indonesia's Sumatra island, has hit other parts of the region, including Indonesia's Riau islands, just off Singapore.

Since the haze arrived, Singapore's buildings have been obscured by the polluted air and the smell of burnt wood has permeated the city-state.

A PSI reading above 200 indicates "very unhealthy" air, while a PSI score above 300 is "hazardous". Readings are being posted on the website of the National Environment Agency.

At a press conference, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the haze could "easily last for several weeks and quite possibly longer until the dry season ends in Sumatra".

Regional press review

  • Straits Times, Singapore: "The truth, sadly, is that rogue firms thrive in permissive regimes where commercial interests overshadow environmental concerns. That situation can be changed only by an act of political will and faithful implementation of laws with sufficient bite."
  • The Star, Malaysia: "We need solutions. It is worth remembering that a ground-breaking Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution was signed here in Kuala Lumpur more than 10 years ago, in 2002... But Indonesia, despite stating many times that it will ratify the agreement, has yet to do so."
  • The Online Citizen, Singapore: "The haze situation has revived an old thorn in Singapore-Indonesia relations. The government's response so far has been strongly worded, and rightly so."
  • Utusan Melayu, Malaysia: "Co-operation between neighbouring countries has to be more vigorous. It is meaningless to be able to control open burning in one country if it is widespread in another."

Mr Lee asked Singaporeans to "stay indoors where possible and avoid heavy outdoor activities".

He also announced that the Singaporean government would hold daily press conferences on the haze situation.

Air traffic controllers in Singapore have been told to work with extra caution given the poor visibility, while McDonald's has temporarily cancelled its delivery service.

The Singaporean military has also reportedly suspended all outdoor training.

The poor air quality has prompted widespread buying of disposable face masks, leading shops to run out of stock.

Parts of Malaysia have also recorded "hazardous" pollution levels, with over 200 schools in the country's south ordered to shut.

Malaysia's Department of Environment has also banned open burning in some states.

Cloud seeding

Indonesia's forestry ministry said it intended to use cloud seeding to try to induce rain on the affected area of Sumatra.

At the scene

The haze blew into Singapore late last week and pollution levels started to soar on Monday. Skyscrapers disappeared into a dense white gloom and a smell of burning enveloped the city.

On Thursday, as haze levels hit a new record peak, visibility was even further reduced. From our office downtown, we cannot make out the shoreline less than a kilometre away. At the port, big container ships emerge ghost-like out of the haze to berth.

People are complaining of dry throats, itchy eyes and a bad taste in their mouths. Laundry hung outside to dry smells like it was left next to a bonfire.

Children and the elderly are being advised to stay indoors until conditions improve - but it is not clear how soon that will be.

Indonesian officials have suggested that foreign palm oil investors, including Singaporean companies, may bear some responsibility for the fires.

However, several major Singapore-based palm oil companies have denied any involvement.

Singapore's prime minister said the city-state had provided satellite data to Indonesia to help identify who was responsible for the fires.

He added that if any Singaporean companies, or companies with a presence in Singapore played a part in the fires, they would be held responsible.

In 1997 and 1998, many countries in the region were affected by the South East Asian haze, which was caused by smog from Indonesian fires.

Road and air traffic was disrupted, and the smog is thought to have made around 20 million people ill.

The haze led to an agreement on trans-boundary haze pollution being approved by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in 2002.

However, Indonesia has yet to ratify the agreement.

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